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The Robot And The Potato

Read this short story about an unlikely friendship.

- First published on Reedsy 2023 as a part of a short story contest

BOT turned to see a foreign metal object strike the valley's far side. Dust plummeted into the thin atmosphere.

            It wasn’t rare for meteors to strike; it was a fairly unprotected moon, but it was a pain in the gears. BOT hoped it avoided the solar panels. It would be a slow and annoying process for BOT to charge its batteries without them. The thought of finding parts to fix them made BOT groan as it rolled past another crater.

            BOT rolled over the ridge It thought looked like a rotten potato when its cameras picked up a visual. It sighed, its metal hinges creaking as it sagged. The object had crashed in the middle of its solar panel field. BOT rolled closer, and when its more sensitive sensors were in range, BOT swore. The solar panels were untouched, but the foreign object had done something worse. It had brought a life form.

            An oval silver object protruded from a disturbed patch of gray dirt. Inside, its sensors picked up a heartbeat. It wasn’t too late. It could turn back now and pretend like none of this had happened. BOT turned around and rolled up the tiny incline. Its wheel struck a rock that crushed under its weight; it froze. An unmistakable hissing sound filled its sensors.

            BOT turned slowly. To its horror, the capsule top opened, and a brown-covered thing popped out of the interior chamber. Two large eyes, one gray and one brown, stared at BOT. BOT turned down its audio, expecting a scream, but nothing sounded. Only a tiny, muffled noise of a voice came through.

            Refocusing its sensor on the small thing, BOT assessed the danger. The creature’s face was almost flat, its shape like a small potato. It was human. BOT groaned. It showed no signs of that horrid wide-eyed expression humans called fear. BOT looked closer. No, the expression resembled... It ran through its old registry of human facial emotions. An action it hadn’t done in many years. It cringed. BOT adjusted its audio again.

            “What are you?” The little human said.

            No, it wasn’t fear on the little creature's face. It was curiosity. Weird. BOT was not the most terrible robot designed by man, but it did stand fourteen meters tall, with a humanoid shape. Most humans feared BOT, or at least knew what it was – a weapon. Instead, this human asked again.

            “What are you?”

            “I am out of here.” BOT croaked.

            Its voice box skipped on the words. BOT hadn’t used that for a long time, either.

            BOT turned and rolled further up the hill, leaving the small thing behind. It had learned one valuable lesson in the infantry. Humans meant trouble. And if it rolled away, the thing would die out here soon enough. This moon did not have a thick enough atmosphere to sustain larger organic forms, which is why BOT had moved here in the first place.

            BOT reached the top of the rotten potato ridge when it heard the voice again.

            “Where are you going?”

            BOT froze and turned its sensors on the ground to its left. The human stood on the ridge next to its chain threads. It barely reached the top of BOT’s feet. This human was smaller. Smaller than any human BOT had seen before. Its eyes were aimed at BOT’s large humanoid hands.

            This thing shouldn’t be able to follow it. BOT might be large and slow compared to other robots, but humans still need a transportation device to keep up. Yet here stood this little person. BOT charged forward. There was no way it would let itself get pulled into this.

            Dust flew behind BOT as it barged down the ridge side, aiming toward the other side of the canyon. There was no way this human would keep up with it now. Yet again, BOT was wrong. Because just as it reached the flat of the canyon, it saw the little human run next to it. A grin on its face. Was it laughing?

            BOT skidded to a stop. “Leave me alone.”

            The two miscolored eyes looked past BOT’s primary sensors. “Why?”

            “Because I don’t want you here. Get off my property!” 

            “What is a property?” The little human chewed on the words like a strange pudding from Alomedra’s oceans.

            “It's a place you are not welcome on.”

            The little human ignored BOT and stepped closer. “What are you?”

            BOT slapped its hands together. The human didn’t flinch as the sound of metal echoed through the canyon. BOT sighed and activated its shoulder cannon. The cannon folded out from BOT’s back and locked on the kid.

            “I will give you one more warning. Get off my property, or I will shoot. Understand?”

            The little human blinked, a different expression now painting its ugly face.

            “Wow. this is so cool. What is it?” The little human suddenly sat on BOT’s shoulder and prodded the cannon.

            BOT’s sensors hadn’t even registered the human's movements. How had the human made it up on its large frame? It should be impossible. 

BOT’s alarms rang. “Get off me.”

            BOT flailed; its too-thick arms were not meant to bend up that far back. It charged ahead again, trying to throw the little human off. But the thing only giggled as BOT turned and thrashed in the gray sand. BOT did everything it could. It sped faster than it had done since it was in battle. It rode in zigzag to try and shake off the human's grip. But nothing worked.

            “Again. Do it again. That was awesome.” The little human cheered on BOT’s back.

A cloud of dust billowed around them. Threats and physical force didn’t work on this human. BOT knew when to change its strategy, slowed to a stop, and folded away the cannon. 

            “What are you?”

            The human jumped down onto the sand. An impossible jump for a normal human.

            “I am Niko. Nice to meet you.” The human reached out a tiny hand. “What’s your name?”

            BOT stared at the little human and ran through a more thorough biologic scan. Its readings were impossible. Niko was maybe six human years old, and every biological aspect of his organic material was elevated. His muscle and bone density were off the charts. If BOT’s educated guess was correct, a DNA test would show markers of manipulated genomes. 

BOT sighed. This human child had to be the result of Scya’s super soldier program. And from BOT’s readings, they had succeeded, which made this so much worse. The last time BOT had been on a mission from the intergalactic company, it had ended badly. If this child was here, then Scya would follow. And if Scya followed, they would find BOT.

            “Why are you here?”

            The child lifted its arms and stretched. “I don’t know. My mother said I was going on a vacation.”

            BOT highly doubted that to be true.

            “Where are you from? Which system?”

            “I don’t know. But my mum told me my planet was called T-5.” The child jumped on BOT’s leg and prodded the hydraulic gear on its knee. “What does that do?”

            BOT grabbed the kid by his shirt and put him down on the sand. “Don’t touch me.”

            BOT had to get this human child off the moon now. It doubted the kid would listen if BOT told it to return to the capsule. Not that it would do any good. From BOT’s earlier scans, the capsule was made for one-way transport. Not regular space travel.

  “Niko,” the word skipped in BOT’s word box.

 The kid grinned up at BOT, who immediately regretted its next words.

 “Come with me.”

 Nico raised his arm in a mock military gesture. “Okay”

 BOT kicked a chunk of rock. “And don’t touch anything.”

 Niko smiled and pulled his hand back from BOT’s rear sensor. “Okay.”

 BOT rolled forward, not looking back to see if the kid followed.

 “Where are we going?” Niko chirped next to BOT and ran without a sweat.

 “I will find a way to get you off my moon.”

           BOT had to find a way to send the child off his moon. An untraceable way. That would be easier to do if it could send Niko back to his home planet. But BOT had never heard of T-5 before.

           The kid skipped next to BOT. “What do those do?”

           BOT didn’t answer as it ran through its probability of failure.

           “What is that” Niko pointed at the meteor rock that had once crushed BOT’s old generator.

            “What is that?” Niko ran ahead and touched the electric poles that marked the spot of BOT’s security fence.

            It only harmed other robots, but BOT wished he had programmed it to stun organics too. He would change the system later.

            The kid ran across the empty field and pointed at the two massive domes BOT had constructed from the remnants of the Scya spaceship. “What are those?”

            That was BOT’s home. The dome to the left was constructed to keep his electric compounds and backup body pieces safe from the radioactive rays of the universe. And the other held his most prized possession. His potato plants. But Niko didn’t need to know that. BOT reached the rolling door of the tech dome.

            “Stay!” BOT told Niko. “And don’t touch anything.”

Niko jumped from one foot to the other, then back again. “Is this your house?”

            “I repeat. Stay here!”

            “Okay!” Niko’s eyes flew across the dome and field of sand.

            BOT sighed and rolled inside its dome. The door rolled shut as BOT crossed the room. There wasn’t much in there. A row of old arms and legs, chains and pressure gages, CPUs, and batteries. BOT knew it would not live past its last piece of equipment. It was running out of gear, but BOT hadn’t planned to live forever.

             BOT reached the other side of the dome and scanned the wall of trash left from when it tore the Scya ship to pieces. And underneath a rusted chest plate sat the biometrics scanner. BOT picked it up, careful not to crush it between its metal fingers, and turned back toward the exit. The kid better still be outside the door.

             It slid open, and to BOT’s relief, Niko stood outside. Niko jumped up and down.

             “Can I come in? Can I? Can I?”

             “No!” BOT walked through the door and heard it shut behind it. “Open your mouth?”

             “Why?”

             “Just do it.”

             BOT half expected the kid to protest, but Niko opened his mouth and waited. BOT tried to open the small lid on the side of the box with its thick fingers but failed.

             “Dooh uhhh neeehhh anhh heep?” Niko breathed out through his open mouth.

             “No.” BOT tried again, with the smallest part of his pinky.

             The scanner made a dangerous creaking noise.

             “aaaah uuuh suuuuhhr?”

             BOT sighed and sat the scanner in front of Niko. “Open this compartment.”
            “Liihh thiff?” Niko slid the lid to the side.

             Inside sat a tray of plastic tubes and a few plastic swabs. BOT had learned about them during one of its later missions to Zineth.

            “Grab one of each item.” It was strange to watch Niko’s nimble fingers close around the items.

            BOT would never admit it, but its size was not always practical. BOT had always wanted to paint but learned quickly that its fingers were too long, thick, and clumsy. The result had been more than a catastrophe.

            Niko held out the two pieces and handed them to BOT. BOT pointed at the smaller swab in Niko’s right hand.

            “Stick that in your mouth and rub it inside your cheek, then put it in the tube. Understand?”

            Niko nodded, did as he was told, and his eyes lit up when he handed the tube to BOT. “Can I go inside now?”

            BOT slid the tube into the machine and turned it on. “No.”

            A pout formed on Nikos's face, quickly replaced by wonder as the biometric scanner began to hum.

            “What now? What does that thing do?”

            BOT sighed and adjusted into a resting position. Its legs folded into themselves, creating a perfect square under BOT’s large metal chest. It couldn’t feel pain or exhaustion, but it saved BOT’s joints from strain. 

            “Now we wait.” Wait for the scanner to filter through the kid's genetic markers.

It might not be necessary, but BOT needed to know exactly what it was dealing with before sending the kid back. In the meantime, BOT would find out where precisely T-5 is. BOT activated its internal communications device and connected to its one link to the outside world. BOT filtered through the information and searched for any mention of T-5.

            It took longer than expected. Five human minutes had passed before BOT found the first file mentioning the planet. It was also the very last file written about the planet. And on the digital file stood large red letters.

            T-5 DESTROYED. In a decree approved by the general of Scya, T-5 was destroyed on the planet's second sun’s sunrise in the galactic year 21-3021 due to proof of genetic tampering and illegal facilities.

            BOT downloaded any file affiliated with the case and broke its connection with the web. The planet had been destroyed five galactic weeks ago. Considering the capsule's trajectory and its crash's timing, Niko would have left T-5 only hours before the decreed destruction. BOT sighed. So, it couldn’t send the kid back to his home. That left only two options.

            One, reconfigure the kid's capsule and send him to a random planet, which would probably end in a search for the origins of the capsule; two, send an anonymous message to Scya and send the kid to a system they control. That way, it would be less likely that Scya would initiate any investigation. Right, option two it is. What happened to the kid after that wasn’t BOT’s problem.

            BOT refocused its attention on the world outside and cursed. The kid was nowhere to be seen. BOT rose to its full height and scanned the ground. Niko’s heat signature led to. Oh no. The potato farm. BOT rushed forward, opened the door to the farm, and prepared to grab the child. And froze.

            Inside, Niko hummed as he walked among the stems of the growing potatoes. And to whichever stem the child could reach on the hydro towers, he plucked off the rotten leaves. A feat BOT had never been able to do without harming the rest of the plants. It had tried with clippers, but it was always so risky that BOT resigned to hope. Hope the plants can take care of their leaves and still grow large potatoes. But hope, as BOT knew, was never adequate.

            Niko turned and grinned back at BOT. “Plants are soooo cool.”

            BOT only stood there as the child moved to it with a handful of rotten leaves.

            “My dad grows potatoes in our yard.” Niko looked down at his hands as he spoke. “It was the one thing we would do together as a family. When I wasn’t in the white rooms.”

Niko looked up, a small smile on his face. “Did you know that potatoes can grow almost anywhere?”

           BOT did but didn’t say anything as Niko put the leaves in its hand.

           “Can you help me get home?” Niko whispered into BOT’s hand.

           “I…” BOT didn’t know what to say.

           It would be harder to convince the child to enter the capsule if he knew his home was destroyed. It would be easier for BOT to tell him it would send him home. But something stopped BOT in his gears, and before BOT had decided on a reply, a ding sounded outside. The biometric scanner was done.

           BOT looked down at the kid's hopeful eyes. Hope is dangerous. Hope had forced BOT to flee Scya, against its programming. Hope had cost BOT the only human it had ever cared about. But.

           “Come with me. I want to show you something.”

           Niko followed BOT outside. When they passed the biometric scanner, BOT downloaded the results through its wireless link.

           “Get on.” BOT lowered its hand to the kid, who climbed on.

           “What is it?” Niko asked, but BOT didn’t answer as it filtered through the kid's genetic markers and the information from the web.

           They reached the rotten potato ridge, and BOT stopped. It had been an uneducated guess, but it had found a match. A long shot in the kid’s genomes. It would mean BOT risking notice from Scya, but it had decided.

           “We are going with option number three.” BOT uttered to the sky.

           “Option three?” Niko climbed onto BOT’s shoulder. “What is option three?”

BOT pointed at the capsule that still lay in the dirt. “We will use pieces of your capsule and my home, build a ship, and find your family.”

           “Really?”

           “Yes. But only if you do what I tell you. Got that?”

           BOT had done the calculations. Niko still had family, but they were in a different system—a system run by the resistance. And BOT hated Scya more than it hated humans. Niko didn’t need to know which part of his family BOT was taking him to. For some reason, BOT did not want to disclose that to the child.

           “Okay,” Niko whispered.

           They stood silently, watching the stars, the distant purple sun—a tiny child on a giant robot's shoulders.

           The kid knocked on the metal on BOT’s head. “So, what’s your name?”

           “I used to be known as Tank-bot 3657 of infantry E-21T, but you can call me BOT.

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