Sophia Nitsche



    A bead of sweat rolled into my eye, which watered in response to the stinging salt. Still, I did not look up. I had been working my pitchfork in and out of the rich soil for hours now, long enough that I could let my mind wander without breaking my rhythm: thrust downward, force upwards, impale the tines upright into soil, bend down to yank out the loosened roots of weeds, toss into refuse heap, repeat. 

Dust and dry air coated my throat, and I yearned for a cool drink of water; but my water bottle was in my bag on the picnic table somewhere behind me. I didn’t dare turn and risk making eye contact with Tugboat. 

    All three of his eye-like cameras were focused downward as his four-pronged “hands” targeted the tiny, easily overlooked roots and sprouts of weeds with sharp precision. Every so often, a bird would fly overhead and one or two of his cameras would swivel around to track the movement. 

    We worked only a few yards apart, and the corner of my eye strained as I watched the droplets of blood and other, heavier things roll down from the gash in the robot’s metal side and leave a trail in the soil. 

    He was a simple AI without synthetic nerve endings or pain receptors, so Tugboat never noticed as the jagged edges of the chain-link fence tangled around him and went through the metal at his lower left back.

    It wouldn't have happened if Tugboat weren’t originally an assistant robot for the tech lab, repurposed for the garden club due to lack of funding. His indoor treads had been upgraded to ones more suited to rolling sideways along the muddy garden paths and some reprogramming had been done to make him recognize and target various species of weeds rather than different types of nuts and bolts in a tech lab. A real garden robot would merely have been scratched or dented by the rust-sharpened edges of the fence, but Tugboat’s boxy frame wasn’t designed to take a beating. His more delicate aluminum siding must have been weakened by months of water, mud, and rust. 

    I panicked when I saw the damage happen. Robots had accidents, of course. AI might be smart, but harm was unavoidable in a world where they had to scoot along, avoiding getting underfoot or stuck on a sharp piece of metal. But I’d become quite fond of the diligent little machine.

    I could still remember the horrible sight of my family’s own robot executing a complex maneuver to avoid my brother’s clumsy toddler feet, and in so doing, dancing right into the path of an oncoming car. The friendly AI that had helped me learn to walk, warmed my brother’s baby formula, and woke us from nightmares, didn’t stand a chance between the weight of the tires and the unforgiving asphalt. Hydraulic fluid and oil spurted from the crushed metal body, its still-jittering movements causing the robot’s lifeblood to spatter across my face. My parents tried to shepherd me away as I sobbed, but I’d seen the mess of crushed springs and circuit board, the spaghetti tangle of rainbow wires; I knew it would never be fixed. I mourned the loss of our family robot long past when the oil stain on the road finally faded. There was a special place in my heart for every well-meaning little robot I came across. 

    Great, I thought. Now we finally get approved for some goddamn AI help in these understaffed gardens and it gets damaged the first time I’m alone with it. Tugboat had been facing toward me at the time, so it wasn’t until I made a move to check the tear that I realized it wasn’t torn wires and machine oil dribbling from the gash, but rather meaty, bloody viscera. Well that’s not supposed to be there, I thought, a combination hysterical and uncomprehendingly numb. It’s like he doesn’t have hardware, but... meat? Meatware? 

    That discovery had been hours ago. Now not just blood, but also tendons and clumps of what appeared to be human hair trailed from the hole, only to be caught by the sticky mud and pulled out, leaving a disgusting trail in the earth behind him. 

Part of me wanted to run, to cover myself in mud and hide deep under the roots of a tree. But the shock from something so unexpected, this unnatural mixture of robotics and muscle that should have no way of existing within a single being, caused some long-buried instinct to take over and work to keep from drawing any attention to myself. 

    I didn’t know how this amalgamation would react if it knew I had seen something I probably shouldn't have. So I stayed still, pretending as though I hadn’t noticed, as though everything was fine. The little robot had never shown any signs of aggression before. He was just an enthusiastic, hardworking, somewhat dumb AI, but the sudden reveal of muscle and tendons draped below his metal shell was horrifying. Tugboat might have been only a reprogrammed garden helper whose head barely reached my waist, but the cluster of prongs at the end of each appendage were long and very sharp. 

    I forced myself not to react in any way that would draw his attention as I saw what looked like a human tooth drop onto the dirt. Tugboat didn’t notice as I swallowed back the burning rise of bile and stopped the rising demand of, “Holy shit, what are you?!” Still, I had to do something; I couldn’t stay here forever, working side-by-side with the abnormal and injured. Manufacturers often emphasized that robots couldn’t suffer, but my memories of our childhood robot pressed me into action. 

I took a deep breath and steeled myself. The garden club had been told that the robot had a microphone through which it could understand simple commands, but I’d never tried before now. 

    “H-Hey Tugboat,” I said. 

    All three of Tugboat’s eyes swiveled around to look at me. 

    “Looks like y-you’ve got a bit of damage there, buddy. I’m-I’m gonna go grab something to patch you up, so just...don’t move, okay?” 

    The expression on his completely featureless face was difficult to read, but his cameras tilted at the end of their eyestalks like a puppy cocking its head. Taking that as an agreement, I gave a thumbs-up and walked backwards until I could dig through my bag. His cameras never left me, his only movement an occasional twitch of a lens to keep me in focus. 

    I found what I needed and made my way back towards Tugboat with my hands outspread, as though approaching a spooked animal. The tear in his side was a window into a wall of muscle, dripping and occasionally pulsating as I slowly knelt in the dirt beside him.

    I fought back vomit and thanked every god in existence that I was wearing thick gardening gloves as I scooped as much of the innards as I could back into the hole. My hands shook as I peeled open every adhesive bandage that had been in my bag and pressed them over the gash until it was completely covered, the best I could do until I could find someone with actual AI knowledge in the deserted expanse of the campus gardens. 

    “There, is that better?” I smiled weakly as Tugboat gave an excited little spin as though grateful. It was much easier to calm down and think rationally now that I couldn’t see the bloody entrails. Poor little robot, I thought. I hope he can be... fixed. 

    I gave him a gentle pat on the top of his square body and turned to put the wrappers from the bandages back in my bag. I finally took a long, relieving drink of water and listened to the squirrels skittering through the branches overhead. What had I been so worried about? Did it really matter what his insides were filled with? Sure, I had some serious questions for the student tech lab that had built him, but Tugboat himself was just a harmless AI only programmed to pull weeds. He was just another little robot. 

    A sudden sharp squeal made me whirl around. Tugboat was doing more excited spins as he rolled toward me, something dark gripped delicately between his metal fingers. If he had a tail, it would have been wagging with pride. 

    I could only stand and watch aghast as he dropped his prize at my feet, a dead squirrel that had been shot through with those long, sharp pincers. Blood was already soaking through the bandages, but Tugboat didn’t seem to notice. All three of his cameras focused intently on my face, clearly waiting for my thrilled reaction.

Sophia Nitsche is a writer and artist involved with organizations that allow writing to be more accessible to people of all ages. This includes work by disabled, LGBT, and racial/ethnic minority authors. She received her B.A. from the University of North Carolina Asheville, where she studied English and Journalism. She has been published in several literary journals and worked as an editor for Headwaters Creative Arts Journal. Sophia explores and enjoys a wide range of genres, with a special interest in science fiction and surreal themes