It was the storm that set it all off. Until then it was a normal night in the laboratory.
Crash! Thunder and lightning smashed through the sky.
“Fzzzt! Ping!” A computer screen flared blue.
“Whirr; click.” Two small red lights appeared on the table.
Flash! The next bolt of lightning revealed that the lights were set in the square head of a spindly figure sitting on the table.
“Ker-cha, ker-cha, ker-cha, klunk, klunk, click.” Lamp light flooded the lab and revealed the spindly figure for what it was – a robot. It was the robot who had switched on the lamp.
The robot stretched its arms high in the air; its joints creaked and clicked. It opened its mouth and its jaw went ‘crawk’. It creaked its head around and its eyes flared as it spotted a can. It eased out a long arm, picked up the can and took a hearty swig from it, glugging liquid down its stiff, silver throat. It flexed its arms and legs. No clicks. It moved its jaw. No crawks. “That is better!” it said, though its voice was still growly like sandpaper. “Now, what is to be done?”
“I dunno, but you’re making a racket.” The voice made the robot jump. “And turn that light out,” the voice grumbled, “I’m trying to sleep.”
“What is that?” asked the robot, trying to swing its head around to face the speaker.
“Over here, metal boy.”
The robot turned stiffly and stared over at the wall. Two piercing eyes glared back at it in the half-light. The robot raised an arm. “Greetings!” it growled.
“Yeah, whatever. Now let me get some sleep.” But the piercing eyes didn’t shut. They stayed staring at the robot. The robot stared back. As its eyes got used to the gloom, it could just make out a pink nose and pale fur, perhaps a whisker or two twitching behind the bars of a cage. The robot wasn’t sure what that all meant. Its programming hadn’t included recognising animals. But then, its programming hadn’t included sitting up on its own, drinking oil and waving its arm in greeting.
“Ok, Ok,” said piercing eyes. “If you insist. I’m Nathaniel, laboratory rat, Nat the rat, geddit? Very funny. They think it’s a joke.”
“Greetings Nathaniel. And what are the ‘they’ that you talk about?”
“Nat will do. And ‘they’ are Big and Bob, or something like that. The humans who made you. The ones who make me do all those stupid tricks.”
“Ah, the creatures with the white coats and big hands. So they are humans. I saw them when they connected my eyes. I have heard them talk.”
“Yeah, I have to listen to them blabber on all day too, and hey, great, now I can listen to you at night. Blabber, blabber, blabber. Fan-blabbering-tastic!”
“They talk of important things. They talk of ‘sin-ee-mar’ and ‘pete’s ah’ and ‘frends’. I do not know what these are, but I think they are something I should try.”
“Yeah, sure, metal boy. Maybe you should.” Nat sniffed the air. “Pizza, that’s food, good food. Big and Bob bring it back to the lab sometimes. Pepperoni and extra olives – that’s the business. One day they left some – what a feast.” He sighed and was quiet for a moment. Then he shook himself.
“Cinema, now…” Nat scratched his chin. “That’s, er, a bit like, um, the computer only more action; and friends, well they’re other creatures like you that you get together with to do stuff, you know, blabber, blabber, let’s go to the cinema, blabber, blabber, go out for a walk, blabber, blabber, come round to my place, blabber, blabber. Can’t see the point in it meself.”
Nat shuffled in his cage, scrabbling straw under his paws. “Anyway, metal boy, got to get me sleep or me brain won’t be sharp for old Big and Bob in the morning.” He put his head on his front paws and shut his eyes. The robot watched him, unblinking.
“Me brain is pretty sharp mind you!” Nat’s eyes sprang open again. “I could do more than they know. Bet I could build a robot like you. I mean, how hard can it be? Big and Bob managed it.”
With that, Nat yawned. His beady eyes, however, remained open.
The robot thought. If friends were other creatures like you, and Nat said it was easy to build a robot, then perhaps it could build a robot which would be a friend. It looked around the laboratory. It knew it had computer bits in its head and there were several computers. It took another swig of oil and eased its way towards the edge of the table.
“Well, if you’re going to be wandering around half the night, I won’t be getting much sleep, will I?” sighed Nat, passing a paw over his forehead. “So you might as well let me out for a bit. I could do with stretching me legs. Gets a bit cramped in this cage.”
Creak, clank, scrape. The robot approached the cage. It reached out a hand to lift the latch. Then it paused. Lights flashed in his head.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” grumbled Nat.
“What will you do when you have left the cage?”
“Like I said – stretch my legs. Why? Have you got any other ideas? Hey, perhaps a little holiday somewhere. How about The Bananas?” Nat stopped and scratched his chin. “Or, er, Bahamas? Or where’s that other place Big and Bob are always raving about – oh yeah, the café. Why do you ask?” The rat tapped his back foot impatiently.
“I would like to make one of these ‘friends’, a robot like me. You know what to do. Perhaps you will help.”
“’Course I know what to do. Simple. Even a mangy old cat could manage it.” Nat grinned cheerfully. “So, get a move on. We’ve work to do. Lift the latch to me cage.”
The robot tried to flex a finger . “Oh why are we waiting?” sang Nat, his voice high and painfully tuneless.
“My fingers are stiff.”
“Just make a bit of effort there. I’ll sort you out with some oil when I get out.”
“Eeeek!” The painful creak came from both the latch and the robot’s finger as the cage door swung open. Nat scrambled onto the shelf where his cage stood. Delicately he shook the straw off each paw and stretched his long white body.
“Aah, that’s gooood!” Nat sniffed around the shelf and peered over the edge. “It’s a long way to the floor. Give us a hand down, there’s a good metal boy.”
The robot stretched out an awkward hand and Nat climbed carefully into it. Then he scuttled along the robot’s arm, onto its shoulder and down its back. He scampered between the robot’s legs and towards the door which led to the corridor.
“Cheers metal boy!” he called over his shoulder. “See ya around kid!”
Nat gave the door a shove. “Come on, open up!”
He pushed again, squinted up at the door handle far out of reach above his head and said some rude words.
The robot stared at Nat. It was confused. Something was wrong here, something was not working as it should be. It reached out its arm and the arm locked into position. It tried to take a step towards the door and its legs locked too. It stood, statue-still in the gloom, its eyes glowing dully.
“Ah,” said Nat, grinning sheepishly at the robot. “Just checking out the door for us, making sure no-one can come in while we’re busy making that robot. Just like we said we would. I wasn’t trying to get out without you or anything. No, not me, I wouldn’t do a thing like that, rat’s honour.”
He gave the robot a friendly shove and the robot, all its joints now completely stiff, could do nothing. It wobbled. It could not put out its arms to help. It toppled. It fell.
The thud was sickening as the robot hit the cold floor. Its eyes glimmered briefly and went out.