NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2023 - R1
Image by Nikolett Emmert from Pixabay
This is the first time I have entered in the same competition twice, and as well as I did, I'm not expecting a precedent to be set here! I'm happy with the result all the same and hope it's the start of occasionally making it through to the second round of the competitions to get to do more writing and have more feedback. It all serves to refine my skills. Fifth place is the highest I've gotten, ever. And in this case it was enough to get me over into the second round. The feedback I received was very light as well. A couple of comments about aspects they likes relating to world building and characters and then some elements to improve, like introducing the conflict sooner and perhaps having more examples of Robbie gossiping (which my original outline had but I had to ditch because of word count issues) and perhaps a few tweaks to highlight some of social the issues more clearly. I've never had the comments be so light on before! I guess I should take it as a good sign when there are no comments on the writing other than it is clean, and there are only a few comments about minor tweaks that might have enhanced the story. I must slowly be heading in the right direction.
Now that I've made it through to round two I get another opportunity to write a short story and see how I go again. Although this time the time constraints are far tighter and the competition will be much tougher. So, we will see how we go. I'm just happy to be having the opportunity to write in the second round and get some more feedback. The tighter deadline is also a nice challenge I've enjoyed having to step up to. Somehow I managed to pull an idea out of... somewhere. It helped to be able to bounce ideas off my better half until something stuck. I've also go the micro fiction challenge coming up in a couple of weeks now too. 100 word fiction is always interesting. Here's my story, anyway.
“Dad, here they come!”
A black van pulls into the long dusty driveway of my farm estate.
“But I said I was fine. I don’t need any help.”
Zack shoots the look my way. The look. The one that says shut-up and let me help you, dad. Ever since Eleanor passed, Zack won’t let me just be. He’s always watching me like a specimen on a slide under the microscope, as if looking away for a moment might cause me to disappear. I should be grateful.
“Please give them a chance. It’s a retirement program they’re doing for all the farmers, anyway. They say it’s the future of farming. Don’t be too proud because it’s a handout from the government. You’ve earned this.”
Why do I feel like the kid right now?
“Okay—okay. I’ll hear them out.”
As two middle-aged men in crisp black suits approach the front door, I try not to cringe. The older one extends his arm to knock on the door, but I swing it open before he gets the chance, startling them both. Good. Don’t want them comfortable. They adjust their suit jackets awkwardly before the older one clears his throat. “Good morning, Mr. Cohen.” A skeezy smile.
“Morning.” I offer a flat response.
Senior extends his hand to shake. “I’m Ivan, and this is my colleague, Samuel. We’re here from the Mechanoid Integration Retirement Program. We spoke to a Mr. Zack Cohen on the phone, and he said that you have decided to take part in the program. Excellent news.”
A clang sounds from the kitchen. I turn to catch Zack peering reluctantly at me—attempting to look innocent. A huff escapes from me before I nod in agreement. “Suppose you want to come in?”
“That won’t be necessary. We just need some paperwork signed and we’ll leave Robbie with you and get out of your hair.”
A mischievous grin explodes on both their faces. “It’s what we call him.”
“Him?” A mechanoid? This doesn’t sound like retirement; it sounds like forced redundancy. Where the hell did Zack go? Did he know about this? We’ll be having words later.
“It’s easier to provide a demonstration. We’ll be right back,” says Ivan.
As they’re unloading a massive humanoid robot that resembles Bumble Bee from one of the Transformers movies out of the van, so many conflicting thoughts run through my head I don’t know what to feel. They open a panel on its back and start messing around with some switches and then suddenly lights come on and the hydraulic limbs move—it’s alive.
“So, Robbie, was it?” I ask the men.
The robot replies, “Robbie is fine. Nice to meet you, Mr. Cohen.”
An icy chill trickles down my spine and my body temperature drops at least 5 degrees. I shudder.
“If I’m calling you Robbie, please call me James.”
The white LED lights in his eyes start small and dim and flare to be wide and bright. “James it is. I hope we’ll become great friends.”
Umm. I shoot a questioning look toward the men. They smile and shrug, leaving me stuck in this awkward moment. What am I supposed to do? I don’t want to offend it. What if it has a revenge module? Why did it say that? Can’t it just do the farm work so I can retire?
“Sure. I guess?”
The men chuckle. “Oh. You weren’t told?”
“Told what?” A ball of discomfort lodges in my gut.
Ivan smiles. “Robbie here is the latest in mech tech. He’s not just here to look after the farm, he’ll look after you too.”
“Oh. That’s, uh, great.” Typical Zack. He signed me up for a babysitter. The ball tumbles into an avalanche.
“Isn’t technology wonderful?” Samuel shoves a clipboard with a thick stack of papers clamped to it in my face. “Sign these, please.”
“Can I read them first?”
“You can… but I wouldn’t bother. Standard boring government paperwork. It’s effectively consenting to having Robbie here all the time—in government speak. Do you want to read it all?”
A quick check of the first few pages and everything seems harmless, so I sign.
“So now it’s just you and me, Robbie.”
“It’ll be great.”
The men leave and Zack introduces himself to Robbie before whispering in my ear and asking if I’m mad at him. I don’t know. Since Eleanor passed, working on the farm has been the only thing that’s given me purpose, and now Zack wants to take that away. What will it leave for me? He means well. The financial incentives are great. And Robbie’s companionship, too—I guess. Double bonus. But what am I meant to do? I’m retired, but I can’t leave. Someone needs to watch Robbie and make sure he doesn’t run the farm into the ground. And the government payments are conditional on not helping Robbie—at all. Zack drilled that into me. They must be desperate to futureproof the concept of a future of farming without humans—one day. A machine has made me redundant.
“You’re just doing what you thought was right.” I sigh. “Can’t fault that.” It’s how I raised him. It’s why I’m so damn uncomfortable with letting a robot do my job.
“Okay dad, I love you. I’ll leave you and Robbie to get to know each other.”
“I love you, too. Zack.”
The whole time Robbie is just staring at me with those big white eyes, even as Zack’s car retreats down the driveway. Who knows what goes through a robot’s head? I shudder.
“I’m going to make myself some lunch. Want something?”
“Hehe. Good one, James. No, mechanoids don’t eat. I would be delighted to keep you company while you eat, though, before I start work for the afternoon.”
I slap together a ham, cheese, and pickle sandwich, grab a cold beer out of the fridge and head out to the patio and plant myself in a chair next to Robbie.
“So, Robbie, what shall we talk about? I’ve never talked to a mechanoid before.”
“You don’t have to make it awkward, James. Pretend I’m a normal person, except you don’t have to feed me. And I’ll do all the work around the farm. It’ll be great, you’ll see.”
“If you say so,” I say around a mouthful of sandwich.
“I’m sensing a little reluctance from you.”
“Can’t imagine where you’re getting that idea from, Robbie. I’m delighted to have you here.”
“You sound it, too.”
“What’s bothering you, James?”
“What do you think?” I take a swig of my beer.
“I’m guessing it has something to do with me, but your sarcasm is making it hard to pinpoint the exact problem.”
The involuntary reaction I have makes beer come out of my nose. “Excuse me?”
Robbie makes a low whirring sound. “You heard me.”
I stare at Robbie, who appears to be matching my stare. Is this—attitude? I almost forget he’s a mechanoid. He—I’m calling it a he now. What’s happening?
“Okay. Fine. I’m not sure how I feel about you replacing me.”
“Well, if I was in your—”
“Ha! How exactly could you be in my position, Robbie? They created you for the sole purpose of replacing me. How can you even conceive other possibilities? You’re a mechanoid.”
Robbie’s eyes go black. For a moment, I think I might have caused a logic error and forced a shutdown. I broke Robbie. A wave of nauseousness crashes over me.
But then his eyes flare bright, and his arms flail out like he wants to hit something, but it goes against his programming. “I know I’m not human, James. It doesn’t mean I’m incapable of comprehending your situation, though. Hear me out. Are you, perhaps, conflicted? I’ve disrupted your routine and taken away what was familiar. Stolen your purpose, while also facilitating untold freedom and opportunity. But in the realm of great unfamiliarity, this is daunting.”
Umm, wow. I was not expecting that.
“Perhaps you should give me a chance to see which way the scales tip before writing me off?”
I see a mechanoid sitting beside me, but my brain is playing tricks on me. I keep thinking of him as something else—something more. The software developers who worked on Robbie must have some quality skills.
I force a smile. “We’ll see.”
His eyes light up, but only a little—I hope that’s positive.
“James! What the hell?”
Larry, my best mate since high school, storms toward the house. Can’t imagine what has him in such a huff. We’ve been through nearly every twist and turn of life together—he’s normally so relaxed. The hardest thing we ever did was give up smoking together back in the noughties—the mood swings nearly killed us both. This retirement is something I will have to do alone though, because Larry works in an industry which can’t be automated—yet. Policing.
“Hey, Larry. What’s up?”
He points a menacing finger at Robbie. “What is that?”
“Oh. That’s my replacement, Robbie. I’m being retired.”
Larry's reaction resembles a feral animal on heat. “You’re what? The farm’s your life?!”
“Tell me about it.” I sigh. “Zack’s idea.”
“That bloody kid.”
Just like his mother. I sag under the weight of Zack’s intentions. “It’s alright, Larry. He means well. It’s probably for the best, anyway. Besides, now I have Robbie here to keep me company around the clock.” I smile at my mech friend. “Isn’t that right, Robbie?”
“Sure is, James.” His eyes flare bright white.
“Well, tell it not to sneak up on people in cars, would you? It nearly scared me into an early grave.”
For a humanistic mechanoid, he can be oblivious sometimes. “Robbie, did you scare Larry?”
“I didn’t mean to; I was coming over to say hi. But he was pre-occupied—”
Larry pivots lightning fast. “Hey! That’s enough from you. Just—just don’t do it again!”
“Yes, sir.” Robbie stands at attention before excusing himself and getting back to work.
“Isn’t it weird, having that thing here all the time?”
“He grows on you.”
“He? James, it’s a robot.”
“Well, technically, he’s a mechanoid, but the software is so good he’s indistinguishable from a person. It’s the first time I haven’t felt alone in years, Larry. And considering all the free time I have with Robbie doing all the work, I think I would have gone crazy without him around. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m glad he’s here.”
Larry pauses on the patio steps. “You don’t say.” He glances over his shoulder at Robbie heading toward the feed sheds and doesn’t even try to hide his disbelief. “I just remembered I can’t stay. I need to take Sean over to his uncle’s place to rewire the boat. Sorry, James.” Larry’s shoulders slump and he retraces his path back to his car. “I’ll come back in a few days.”
“Sure, no worries.” He’ll come around.
Robbie rushes up as Larry’s car speeds out of the driveway. “What happened?”
“Nothing happened. What makes you say that?”
“My understanding of human interactions is that when friends visit, they stay for a while before leaving.”
“Oh. That. I think you made him uncomfortable.” That came out easily.
“Only because I caught him smoking in his car. He was quite flustered.”
“Smoking, huh?” The lying sniv. After all these years. “Thanks, you did me a solid.”
“Just telling what I saw.”
“Well, you keep on telling it like it is, you hear?” At least someone is honest. What else has Larry lied about over the years? “Think I’ll get myself some lunch. You can hang around or head back to work, whichever you prefer.”
I quickly make myself a chicken and salad wrap, topping it with crispy shallots and wasabi, then grab myself a cold beer from the fridge and head back out to the patio to eat. It’s not surprising to find Robbie waiting for me.
“I’m starting to think you’re a good egg, Robbie.”
“I’m not an egg though, James.”
“I mean… of moral character.” How can I explain it to him? “I think the scales are tipping in your favor.”
His lights emanate a warm glow. I swear he’s smiling at me. A warmth expands in me. Retirement might be okay after all. I’ll have to thank Zack the next time I see him. It’s reassuring to be surrounded by good people at this point in your life. The only decision left to make now is what to do with my free time—other than enjoying Robbie’s company.
It’s been a little over a month since Robbie was first unloaded on my doorstep, and I commenced my descent into semi-involuntary retirement. He’s really won me over since that first skeptical encounter, though. My hands tremble with nervous excitement in anticipation of the confirmation appointment today. These men need to hurry. I just want the paperwork signed and completed so that Robbie and I can settle into this new life we’ve created. The best part is they double the pension after you transition to the permanent retirement program. For someone who wanted nothing to do with this program—they’ve flipped me around.
A black van turns off the main road and onto our driveway.
“Robbie, here they come!”
Robbie joins me out the front of the house and we wait patiently as the two familiar faces get out of the van. They approach with relaxed, knowing expressions on their faces. I imagine they see skeptics convert to true believers all the time. What an amazing job they have.
“Good morning, Mr. Cohen.”
“Good morning, gentlemen.”
“You seem, well.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Retirement suits you.”
“Thank you.” I grin.
Everyone is radiating positivity—so unlike our first encounter.
“So, before we give you the confirmation papers, there is a small formality we must go through,” Ivan says.
“Sure, anything at all.” I can’t stop beaming and I don’t care. I can’t remember the last time I was this happy. Not since Eleanor was alive, that’s for sure. It’s a sign of things to come.
“Robbie, wellness report please?”
Robbie’s eyes turn from white to green. He stares at me while replying. “It appears Mr. Cohen has a drinking problem and may require some additional help.”
“Hey! What the hell? I don’t have a drinking problem. Where is this coming from?”
Robbie’s eyes turn white again. “Sorry, James, just telling it like it is.”
The two men step forward and grab my arms. “Hey!”
“Please come with us, Mr. Cohen. We’ll get you the help you need. You don’t need to suffer from your illness in your retirement.”
“But I don’t have a drinking problem!”
“Denial will not help the situation here.”
I’m not so opposed to being held anymore. I feel light-headed. And my chest hurts.
“What about my farm?” I sound meek.
“Robbie will take good care of it for you.”