“Oh.” Nat paused. “Ah.” Another pause. “Oops!”
Nat walked around the robot. “Hey metal boy, wake up!” He gave it a gentle tap. “Come on!” He shook its shoulder. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Just larking around. Oh glory! It can’t hear me at all. What am I going to do? Hey, metal boy,” Nat’s voice rose to a squeak. “I said ‘what am I going to do?’”
In the silent laboratory Nat scampered up and down. “It’s not like it’s my fault after all. Big and Bob can’t have made it too well. Never thought they were much good. I’ll just nip back into my cage and pretend I don’t know anything. I was asleep. Yea, that’s it. Big and Bob won’t suspect me.”
He stopped scampering and looked down at the robot.
“Poor metal boy,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”
Nat turned away and looked up at his cage, high above. He shuffled over to some computer wires hanging down to the floor, gave them an experimental tug and began to climb them.
Nat was so startled by the robot’s grating croak that he let go of the wires and tumbled to the ground.
“Ow! You made me fall!” he complained, but his voice was light and happy.
“Oil!” repeated the robot.
“Yeah, sure, of course, oil!” Nat skipped across the room and looked up at the table.
“It’s up there, but, hold on, sorry about this.” He clambered onto the robot and walked along his body until he was close to a chair.
“Right,” he said, standing on the robot’s left ear, “I should be able to reach the table from here. One, two, three…” scrabble, scratch, “bother!”
As Nat tried – and failed – to jump onto the table, his flailing paws caught the edge of the can. Nat tumbled to the floor, closely followed by the oil can which bounced against the robot’s body, spraying oil as it went. The robot moved. Oil was trickling along its stomach and down its arms and legs, easing the joints.
“Perfect! And just how skilled am I at putting on a drop of oil?” Nat clapped his front paws together.
“Give me oil can!” creaked the robot.
“Right you are, you’ll soon be right as rain or my name’s not Nathaniel, which it probably isn’t, ’cos that’s just the name Big and Bob gave me. Don’t know what me mum named me. Prince probably, or Glorious One.” Nat jumped lightly off the table and skidded on the oil on the robot’s stomach.
“Whoa! Ow!” he sat up and rubbed his head. “I tell you, it’s all fun and games with you around. Here we are then.”
He pushed the oil can towards the robot who picked it up with stiff fingers and raised it awkwardly to its mouth. It glugged oil down its throat until the can was empty. Then it flexed its joints and rose slowly to its feet.
“Told you, better already,” grinned Nat. “You still look a bit stiff though. Tell you what, let’s do some exercises. Up, down, touch your toes…er, where are my toes? Hmm. Well maybe rats are meant to be a little tubby. Still, come on metal boy – stretch, up, up, uh? What’s that?” He stood on his hind legs, his head to one side.
“What is what?” asked the robot, turning his head to one side to mirror Nat.
“Ssh! I can hear something! Us rats have excellent hearing. Something is coming. Quick! Hide!” Nat leapt off the table and scuttled under a cupboard.
“Where shall I hide?” The robot swivelled its eyes around the room.
“Just lie down, shut your eyes, and your mouth! Honestly,” grumbled Nat, “I thought robots were meant to be clever.”
“I believe you said we must be quiet,” the robot said and sank stiffly to the ground and lay still.
Nat opened his mouth to say something insulting but whatever it was remained unspoken. Instead he stared towards the door. Through the pane of frosted glass in the top half of the door, Nat could see a shape. There was a tap at the door followed by a pause, then a rattle, a clink, a click and a creak. Something or someone had turned a key in the lock and had pushed open the door.
Nat held his breath and backed further under the cupboard.
Light flooded the room. Click, click. Nat could just see a pair of red high-heeled shoes cross the floor.
“Tut! What a mess!” A female voice complained. “Oh, and look, the cage is open. Where is that rat? Cedric!”
“Yes, ma’am.” A gruff male voice responded. Its owner sounded nervous.
“I thought you said the rat would be in the cage!”
“Yes, ma’am. It was earlier. I saw it.”
“It!” muttered Nat. “Him, please. Have some respect.”
“What did you say Cedric?” snapped the female voice.
“I said I saw it earlier.”
“No, you said something else.”
“No, ma’am, honestly I didn’t.”
“Well don’t! Speak only when I tell you too! And, ow!” There was a crunch. “What is that pile of rubbish down there?”
“I, er, think it is a robot ma’am.”
“Yes, I can see it’s a robot. I just hit my foot on it. Let’s have a look at it.” There was some scraping and clanging.
Nat crept forward and peered up. A human female had the robot by the neck so that its body and limbs dangled limply down. Nat willed the robot to keep its eyes shut.
“What’s that?” The man called Cedric dropped to his knees and peered towards the spot where Nat was hiding.
“Well get it then!”
Cedric stretched a gloved hand out and reached under the cupboard. He groped around.
“No, nothing. It must have been a shadow. Sorry ma’am.”
“Stupid man! They must have put the rat somewhere else. We shall have to look around. ”
“Would you like me to carry the robot for you ma’am?” Cedric simpered.
“No, idiot. If we take it now we’ll arouse their suspicions and I don’t want to do that before I’m ready to reveal my final plan. This thing is not finished anyway. It’s just a pile of junk.” There was a crash as the robot was dropped onto the floor. “Come on Cedric. You’ve still got some work to do outside.”
“But it’s raining ma’am,” grumbled Cedric.
“So, a little water never hurt anyone. Hurry now, we need some rats!”
The high heels clicked again towards the door followed by the slower clump, clump of Cedric’s boots. The room went dark. The door creaked, there was a clink and a click. Silence.