Short-story revolving around an apocalyptic world of the future where humans have turned against themselves but no longer have space in their hearts to trust the robots designed to defend them.
Mrs Clearey guided a child to one of the school nurses, rolling the .308 caliber bullet in her warm palm as she walked. She could see Lars through the glass screen, standing in the office with security personnel running their fingers over the joints in her metallic body. The robot's face was somber- the red LEDs in her eyes only glowing faintly as if her battery was low.
The click of Clearey's short heels on the lino lifted the gazes of the men. They nodded at her approach from the hall and glanced through the window at the infirmary.
"Was the boy harmed?" one queried, giving Lars a stern tap on the shoulder with his baton. A metallic ring bounced into the air with the quality of a hollow object.
Clearey shook her head, handing the bullet to the second officer. "He's traumatized, but she didn't attack. I just can't believe even Lars has turned against us," she said, crossing her arms and looking down at the ground as the colour drained from her face.
Lars opened her mouth to object, the pupils in her eyes twisting and buzzing as they dilated like a camera lens, but the baton came again- this time firmly against the back of her head. She staggered forward with a surprised grunt, feeling no pain but the warning flash of red across her vision.
"We still haven't found out where the bullet came from. She's sealed tight," the baton-wielder said, smirking down at her as she slumped to the ground.
Knuckles turning white, Clearey gulped nervously at the sight of the gentle robot running her fingers over the dent in the back of her skull. She shuddered, casting a dark glance towards the glass window. The young boy stood behind it, just inside the infirmary doorway, tears staining his red cheeks as the nurse spoke to him in words too quiet for Clearey to hear. The sight chilled her pity for the robot.
30 minutes previously
The lunchtime rush streamed out of the classroom like a school of fish, giggles and the patter of bare feet filling the musty air of the hallway. Children of various ages spun and chattered, teachers wove among them like hawks, and the humanoid robot lingered near the lockers with a grin stretched as wide as her latex face would allow.
Lars greeted each child with a reassuring smile, dispensing a can of drink into the tray in her stomach when they ordered. The absence of stress in the children's words and expressions were what she was programmed to enjoy.
"Wassat mean?" a small boy asked, drawing her gaze down several levels to meet him eye to eye. His stubby fingers poking up at the letters carved down the left edge of her chest. L.A.R.S.
"You must be Marco, the new student," she said in a gentle, if monotonous, voice. The fan at the nape of her neck whirred as she connected a conversation she'd heard in the staff room that morning to the child's unfamiliar appearance and lack of common knowledge about her.
He nodded, smiling a toothy grin that showed off a gap where one of his teeth had fallen out. "That's me! I've never seen a robot before. Ma used to say we couldn't trust them, but you seem cool!"
She reached out to ruffle his hair shyly, letting out a little laugh when he scrunched up his face at the cold touch of her metal fingers. "The letters stand for Learning Advisor Robot. I don't know what the S stands for."
Gingerly, he shuffled forward to hug her. She stood stiff, chest plate warming from his hot cheek. "Safe," he murmured.
Her eyes flashed as she gazed over him, spotting a small chip implanted in the back of his neck. An old style of keeping track of individual humans in the city from the robots that used to roam the city before the war disturbed the peace. Tilting her head, curiosity overwhelmed Lars and she reached out to touch it with a sensory finger.
Images flashed across her mind, vision sliding away from the present and lighting up with information that was being processed by her software. An image of the child appeared like a juvenile mugshot. Facts began to print out beside it as information was uploaded from the chip directly into her brain.
Marco Rasmus. 7 years of age. Missing. Both parents deceased- father killed by a rebel raid in the war, mothers death unknown. Images captured of various shelters he had stayed at flashed in her mind's eye. The last one was the rusty sign outside of the abandoned school- his current location. Her ears filled with the sound of soldiers boots on the ground and the roar of protesters before she swayed on her feet, falling forwards.
"Lars?" a steady pair of hands caught her as she fell, pushing her up with the grind of metal on metal as her joints bent.
The robot blinked many times, refocusing her lens as reality dotted back into view. Mrs Clearey, the principal, was holding her up by the shoulders. The tall woman tapped Lars on the head, pursing her lips with worry. "Earth to Lars, can you hear me?"
Clunking and jolting, Lars staggered out of the woman's grip and stood trembling up against a locker. There was a grinding noise from her body as cogs and wheels turned, as if her hardware was relocating itself inside her shell. After minutes of mechanical noises, there was silence. Lars looked up at the principal and down at Marco, who was hiding behind her.
"I apologise," she said, standing up straight, "I seem to have had a minor malfunction. I am fine."
Cleary frowned, reaching for her phone but being stopped by the grasp of Lars cold hand. The robot stared into her eyes firmly. "I am fine," she repeated.
Reading the unconvinced look on the principals face, Lars turned to Marco. "What would you like to order?"
He shuffled out from behind his elder and stared at the buttons that lit up Lars' front, eyes beginning to sparkle at the prospect of free fizzy drink. He reached up and tapped the little red 'cola' button, cupping his hands in front of the dispenser.
Lars system seemed to lag for a few seconds before whirring into life, and with a clunk a small golden object clattered down the chute and rolled into Marco's hands. All the emotion reactors in Lars face went numb and dull as she stared at what had fallen into the child's open palms. Horror was painted over his face as draining white skin and creases forming around his eyes as his mouth twisted to let out a shriek.
It was only moments before Mrs Cleary, Marco, and all the children around Lars let out a series of screams at the large bullet she had dispensed.
Lars sat silently on the office floor as the two men in navy blue uniforms prised her back cover off. The steel sheet fell to the ground with a twang. She shivered as she felt a hand reach directly inside of her and prod the delicate inner workings inside.
She had abandoned timing her inner clock as they had worked to open her up. All number of sharp implements had been jammed in every socket they could find. Now she was open wide, a disturbing feeling as the draft caressed her wires. The officers had gone quiet, one trailing a finger over something nestled in the hollow space of her back.
"Clearey... are you telling me you never knew the robot you hired had this?" one said, removing his hand from within Lars.
The principal turned away from the mirror, where she had obsessively stared through at Marco being assured that he was not in any danger. Her mouth fell open when she stared into Lars. The interior of the robot was basically empty besides a metal spine that supported the weight of the rest of the frame and the wires trailing into each limb. The empty space was being utilized by many ammunition belts wound many times over around the spine.
"W-we didn't hire her. We found her..." Mrs Clearey stuttered, sinking into an uncomfortable office chair and taking shallow breaths. "Nobody wants robots. Nobody can afford robots," she added, cold gaze boring into the wall as she reached for a packed of cigarettes in her purse.
One officer turned back to the bullets that filled up the inside of Lars. He looked it up and down, staring at where the first belt fed into a hole in her left shoulder joint. A shiver ran across his spine as he reached to unclip it.
"There's probably a gun mounted in her arm somewhere," he mumbled, raising the bullets up to his face to examine.
Clearey lurched in her seat and balled her hands into fists. Lars moved slightly, glancing at her superior nervously. She thought the principal might throw up- she looked a pale shade of green, her eyes sunken in shadows from the few stressful hours they had been cooped up in the gloomy atmosphere of the office.
"The bullets seem tailor made for this robot, specifically," the officer said as he began to read off the small imprints in the bullets, "L.A.R.S Learning Advisor Robot and Security."
Lars jolted up, the sudden movement shocking the two officers backwards across the floor as if they thought she was preparing to shoot. She stayed seated, trying to crane her neck to look at her own back.
"The S stands for security?" she said quietly.
"These would have been the robots that used to patrol schools when the war started," the older of the two officers sighed, "Friendly exterior, mean machine interior."
"I'm not mean," Lars said.
Mrs Clearey finally stood and walked over to Lars, putting a shaking hand on the robots shoulder. "This is a peaceful school where children hide from the war and all the rebels and riots that have come with it."
Lars looked up at her with curiosity, the fringe of her green synthetic hair getting in her eyes. Clearey hushed her, even though she hadn't spoken, and stroked the robots head- pulling it closer to her body.
When she tuned the microphones in her ears to listen, Lars could hear other teachers speaking in the neighboring room.
"The walking soda machine is finally getting booted," one voice said.
"For real? I've been telling Clearey for months that people turned against robots for good reason. Walking time bomb more like it."
Lars wanted to lift her head and protest, to promise to her beloved humans that she would only use these weapons for good. She would even forget them altogether, if they just asked. But before she could open her mouth, Clearey's thumb jammed into the back of her neck and ejected her operating chip from the slot. The lights in Lars' eyes went out completely.
The acidic wind snapped at Lars heels as she walked along the dusty road. The orange light on her neck that read 'Low Battery' had come on. Alongside her was the pitter patter of rain, and in the distance was the pitter patter of machine gun fire. Light was scarce even in the evening due to thick smog and towers of smoke.
She stopped in the middle of the abandoned street, reaching up to poke one of her buttons with a finger. There was a rattle before another bullet dropped down into the tray. She leaned forward to shake it out. There was a blank space in her memories where there was only darkness. As if she had fainted for several ours, if that had been possible for robots.
When she had awoken Mrs Clearey was shaking her awake, outside of the building in the shadows of the red buildings that lay abandoned across the entire town. Tears had welled from the principals eyes like a leaky tap. She had pulled Lars roughly to her feet and pushed her down the street.
"Go!" she had screamed, shaking with her knees pressed together, "They think I scrapped you Lars. But I couldn't. I couldn't break that chip. They don't believe robots care for humans but you're just as scared as that child. Go, please."
Lars had stood in shock as her system rebooted and she processed everything that was happening. Without arguing she had nodded to her human friend and fled.
With a rumbling sigh, Lars continued walking. As much as she appreciated the act of letting her go, she didn't have anywhere to go. The town was entirely abandoned, only kept company by marching soldiers and tanks that tore down all the remaining evidence that a civilization that had lived without war ever existed here.
War had torn away everyone's innocence and replaced it with fear. So much fear all were willing to turn against one another. L.A.R.S Learning Advisor Robot and Security. Lars pressed one of her buttons. A heavy can of cola fell into her tray with a clunk.
She remembered what Marco had said. L.A.R.S. Learning Advisor Robot. Safe.