Not Broken

by Ana Abdullah - January 24, 2019

— Summary: It was deemed illegal to shut down a Homebot. But when Sulaiman, a low-rank technician was called in one late night to switch one off, he encountered more than he could handle. —

“I - I am to shut down an android, sir?” stuttered Sulaiman as he entered the lift.

"It should be simple enough for you,” said the young CEO. “Yes, it’s against company policies, I know, I know. But the engineers made some costly mistakes. The best decision is to shut down the Prototype but our project leader has refused."

“So you - you need my Key?” Sulaiman stepped back in shock. “No, sir, Mr Basheer wouldn’t approve. Please, no, no, sir.”

But the old thin Fixer couldn't run out quickly enough. The doors closed and the lift descended to Basement Five. The old assembly floor where their first android, the Homebot was created. Now, it held secret projects meant only for high-level staff. Yet here he was now, a nobody, just a technician with fifty years of service, riding this restricted access lift. They needed his Key, needed him to commit a sin.

“Fifteen K already in your account, Sulaiman,” announced his superior as if reading his guilt. “My gift to you for your dedicated long service.”

His phone beeped in his front pocket. Sulaiman scrambled for it to see if he was teasing but the numbers made his aged eyes water.

“This is too much, Mr Jamal!” He exclaimed.

“I heard you’ve been getting pains in your hands. Rheumatism?”

A soft pat on his shoulder actually made Sulaiman stumble forward. But there was no mockery. A genuine sympathy from Mr Jamal.

The old Fixer looked away, embarrassed.

“For these pains, Uncle, I’ll transfer another fifteen when you have helped me.”

As if to seal the deal, the lift stopped and opened for Sulaiman. And his superior strode out, already heading towards the assembly corridor.

“Mr Jamal, please - please listen.” He called out. “I’m sure I can repair it if it’s broken — ”

The CEO stopped suddenly then spun around with a wry smile.

“I've kept the old assembly area as it is.” He said. “I remember how we use to solder every chip and weld every metallic limb by hand.

“It was a humble start with just Father, his engineers and you, the only Fixer back then. Every day after school, I’d see everyone struggling to create our very first android.

“But as good an inventor as he was, Father was a terrible businessman. The company will be prosperous with me now. Right, Uncle?”

“Y - yes, sir, yes,” whimpered Sulaiman.

His arrogance worried him. Once a curious child and now, a tall prideful man more ambitious than his father, Mr Basheer. But with ambition was the great pressure to succeed better. The disheveled hair, the batik sleeves clumsily rolled up his arms, his red tired eyes, Mr Jamal was breaking apart without his father nearby.

"Have you been coping well, sir?” Sulaiman asked gently. The grief was recent after all. “I know how you feel when we lost Mr Basheer. It still hurts me to come to work without seeing him."

"Yes, yes, all is good, I’m fine, everything’s fine.” He stopped before a white door. “The Prototype is in the Research room. Look, Sulaiman, I don’t know why you have the Key but shut it down. It’s between us. No one has to know. You understand?"

The grip on Sulaiman's arms tightened when he was slow to nod.

“Good, good, that’s a good man. Now go.”

But Sulaiman stopped when Mr Jamal didn't follow.

"I - I'll wait here," replied his superior quickly. "Look here, I have its vitals on my phone. Shut it down in ten minutes. You’ll get the rest of your money then. Go!"

And the old Fixer turned away in shame. He didn’t really need the money. The pain in his hands, his battle wounds from his years for the company, he never minded any of it. The company was his family. You listen to family, even if they could be wrong. You guard the family secrets to the grave.

He winced when he pushed the heavy door open, half expecting the Research room to be scattered with the broken android parts and half expecting to be attacked by a rampaging Prototype. That would be the only reason the late Mr Basheer would allow his creations to be shut down. Or else, “If it’s broken, fix it, Sulaiman. Never shut it down. You must respect Life, human or not.”

But the room was empty when the lights came on. Clean tidy working tables, with every transistors, capacitors and and chips in their right places. Any broken parts were thrown into a large bin. And beside it was a standing Prototype, its body draped with a black sheet.

Sulaiman approached it carefully. An intimidating figure that towered over the small hunched Fixer. He peered closer to see its face. But there was only a pair of closed eyes on the crudely shaped skull. He could hear its processors humming softly. The Prototype was in hibernation mode. Even if it was different, Sulaiman noticed the indentation on its forehead. It was still made in its predecessor’s image. He tapped the power button twice.

“I’m sure I can fix you.” He whispered. Age had made him quite stubborn.

The Prototype trembled as its gears and operating systems came to full activation. Its chest then rose under its sheet as if taking a deep breath. After which, its metallic eyelids fluttered open, revealing a frightened brown gaze.

“Please don’t kill me.” A crude harmony of voices.

That wasn’t how your typical Homebot started up.

Never looking away, the Prototype began to move its long limbs. It wobbled in its eagerness to step forward. Quickly, its chrome arms reached out to balance, slipping off its sheet, revealing its entire hideous self to Sulaiman.

He cried out in terror, stumbling back to the floor, fearing for his life.

A Homebot model was made to be a dainty human companion of pastel colours and adorable voices. This was a monstrous robot, heavily framed with thick wires and cables, a thing of nightmares. And within its crude rib-cage, a blue light was pulsing in a rhythm of a heart. No Homebot was created with a heart.

“Help me.”

With its desperate plea, the Prototype finally fell forward. It scratched the tiles as it scrambled to get up. It managed only to kneel before him. Too close, too easily struck by those hideous hands.

But the metallic creature only lowered its head, showing off its open skull. Colourful wires weaved over a motherboard of components that created its intelligence. When Sulaiman didn’t move, it looked up.

“See, see, see.” A cacophony of rough voices again.

Sulaiman shrieked, hiding within his arms. What was this monstrosity that they have created? Now he understood. Of course such a thing should be shut down! It was horrific, despicable, an abomination —

You must respect Life.

The guilt made him peek. The monster was waiting, still looking at him. Such strange eyes for a robot. Such familiar gaze that showed no malice. Sulaiman sat up.

“See me.” It requested.

He had only ten minutes. Quickly, he initiated his workpad to access the Prototype’s system. Yes, he could fix it. He could just tell Mr Jamal it wasn’t broken. He would make it more family-friendly. It could just stay hidden with him in the company. He did it for decades after all.

But the images playing on his workpad stopped his optimistic thoughts. No, he had been naive. His heart broke by the truth of its creation. He understood everything now, how the Prototype came to exist, why it begged for its life, why it looked at him now with such familiar gaze.

“O Allah, what - what have he done to you? Why? If the others know, we can save you. I need to tell them!”

But the Prototype had stretched up menacingly before him. Its gaze shifted behind him. Before he could see, Sulaiman was shoved aside, slamming hard against a wall. His entire body buzzed sharply at the sudden impact. He struggled to stand but fell back as a heavy metal rod came into view.

“Is it so hard to follow an instruction, old man? Give me the Key. We need to shut it down now!” Mr Jamal stood before him, knuckles white with the rod.

The Prototype struggled to stand, wobbling even worse now without its left arm. It fell back against a table, overturning and trapping itself under it. It thrashed about wildly, trying to get away to nowhere.

“Your Key, now!” yelled the CEO.

Sulaiman stood straight between him and the Prototype.

“I will not kill, Mr Jamal.”  The tensed pause made his entire body shivered in fear and rage.

“I will not kill my family, sir.” He pointed with a trembling finger at the Prototype. “I will not kill your father.”

“What are you talking about, you old fool? This isn’t my father. My father’s dead! This is a machine running on electricity. It’s a failure and I need to shut it down now!”

“He’d shown me everything, Mr Jamal. I’ve accessed his directories. You had a new project idea but your father wouldn’t hear of it. Then he had that accident — ”

A soft chuckle from the young man.

Sulaiman froze. “It wasn't an accident. You - you did this to him! Why, sir, why? He was your own flesh and blood.”

“The androids were his flesh and blood, you stupid man! He valued his creations more than he loved his own son! Always fixing the bloody Homebots, even those obsolete ones. Do you know how much the company is wasting its resources? He was an idiot of a businessman.

“What I had in mind is revolutionary, Sulaiman. An android that can last longer because it learns to regenerate and repair itself. How do you do that? Take the human body and merged it with the robotic parts.

“So when my father died, it was  a wonderful opportunity to test my idea. All his life, he never gave me anything, not a single damn thing! So why can’t I take his body? I gave him the ability to be part of his creation! What a great son I am, right?

“But the old man came back to life. Can you imagine my disappointment?”

Sulaiman punched him and kicked the rod away.

“It’s murder, Mr Jamal, and I won’t do it. I'm calling the police."

Sometimes tough love was necessary with family. Sometimes a child could go too far, needing to be disciplined better. His old eyes blurred to see the emergency numbers. But metallic fingers softly pulled his phone away. Sulaiman looked up at the terrifying being. With a sad gaze, it pinched his thumb, bringing it towards its forehead, to its power button.

“No, sir, no, please don't!” Sulaiman cried.

Three scans of his thumbprint and an android could be shut down. Only Sulaiman had the Key because he was the Key. It was Mr Basheer’s cruel joke. If you need to shut down an android, get the Key from Sulaiman.

It had scanned his thumb twice.

“One more and you'll kill us both, sir.” Sulaiman touched the metal hand gently.

The Prototype looked at him in confusion.

“In your form now, you’ve forgotten my true nature, sir,” said the Fixer. “Don’t you remember me, Mr Basheer? I’m Sulaiman, the first android that you’ve created. You've repaired and kept me alive for the past fifty years.”

“What? No, no, that’s ridiculous!” Mr Jamal's yell echoed throughout the entire floor. “Are you senile, old man? So dedicated in your work that you think you're a machine?”

Sulaiman lowered his head to the young man. With a tap to the back of his head, the top of his skull flipped open, revealing almost similar content as the Prototype.

“It isn’t pretty like the other Homebot, sir. I’m an old model.” He closed back his skull.

“No, no, you’re human! That was a trick. You talk and breathe like me, not like a Homebot! I've seen you eat and laugh. You even perform the Salaah with the others. Look at you, you’ve aged.”

“With time, everything aged, sir. I’m made to mimic humans. To learn and feel belong in this family of humans and androids. Mr Basheer made me the Key to teach me that family don’t kill one another. If I use it, I’ll shut down too. I don’t want to die, not yet.”

Then turning to his creator, Sulaiman said, “Just now, you were desperate to live. Why won’t you cherish your life now?”

“I have failed my son. I was wrong to desire life again.” A symphony of cries. “I am not human.”

“If you feel this much, sir, then you’re still human. So please live.”

With that, Sulaiman covered him with the black sheet, respecting his creator as the human he always was.  Then carefully, he embraced his wiry structure.

“Where are you going? You both belong to Homebot Tech! I’ll sue you for damages, I’ll sue!” The irate CEO stood before him.

Sulaiman pushed him aside. The man actually stumbled back, surprised at his newly acquired strength. The old Fixer continued with his rescue, out onto the familiar assembly line, away from past memories.

“Please stop, Uncle,” begged the boy behind him. “Sure, the Prototype was a failed experiment. Fine, I won’t shut it down. I wanted to create an android just like you, Sulaiman. Look at how you have advanced into such intelligence! Think of the great things we could do for the company, for humanity!”

Sulaiman reached for the lift button.

“I gave you money, you bastard!” echoed the angry words.

“I’ll return the money. You need it more. You need help, Mr Jamal. Help for your soul. You won’t be seeing any of us anymore, sir. I had a wonderful time with this company.”

He looked up at the Prototype.

“Mr Basheer and I can no longer be part of this family, sir. We can’t be around you anymore. Not when you’re like this. Goodbye, Mr Jamal.”

“You have nothing with you! Where will you go? You're a couple of old fools!”

“This is enough. Just the two of us. As long as we're not broken, we'll survive.”

And the lift doors closed between them.
Ana Says
I wanted to try writing science fiction again, a longer one this time. Ironically, I hardly read science fiction. I do, however, enjoy watching films and animations with themes of mutation, biotech and AI. Perhaps, one day, I'll write a mystery around them. Do you like reading or watching science fiction?

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