Master Thomas’s Table – a flash sci-fi story

When I first saw the farm, I thought I was hallucinating. It seemed impossible that there was this much green in the whole dustbowl of the southwest, that those fields of vegetables survived in a world stripped of defenses against the sun’s glare.

Yet here it was.

I was hungry as hell, my body thin and sickly from living off old canned goods, but I kept myself from just pulling up fistfuls of carrots and eating them right then and there. The one thing I wanted more than proper food was human company, some reassurance that I wasn’t alone in the world. That conversation might not go well if it started with me stealing their crops.

As I approached the farmhouse, I saw a figure working in the fields. My excitement died a little when I saw the squared off silhouette and the gleam of sunlight on metal.

“Greetings,” the robot said as I approached. “How may I assist?”

“Is the owner of this place around?” I asked.

“Master Thomas is indisposed,” the robot said in a deadpan metallic tone.

“Guess I’ll wait until he’s free.” I nodded to a hand-cranked pump standing in the yard. “Alright if I get a drink?”

“Yes,” the robot said, returning to its work.

The pump moved with well-oiled ease and a minute later I was gulping down pure, cold water. This Thomas character sure took care of his farm.

I waited in the shade of an apple tree, my bag on the ground beside me, happy to enjoy the water and a rest. The longer I waited, the more I was taken by the perfection of Thomas’s work, and the more eager I was to meet him.

“Your boss gonna be free soon?” I called out.

The robot paused, the lights in its eyes blinking.

“Master Thomas is indisposed,” it said.

Another two hours passed without sign of the farmer. I was getting impatient.

“I need the john,” I said.

It was true as well as being a good excuse. Not waiting for a response, me and my full bladder headed toward the front door of the farmhouse.

Swift footsteps thudded past me. The robot stood in my way.

“Master Thomas is indisposed,” it said, raising its voice.

“But can’t I just-”


I looked around.

“Guess I’ll go take a leak around the side,” I said. “Is that what you want, someone pissing up against the wall?”

The light’s in the robot’s eyes blinked, then it nodded.

“Yes,” it said, then returned to work.

I got around the side of the house, took a long piss in the dirt, then looked about. Something wasn’t right with this place and that damn robot. Now I wasn’t just in need of human contact. I wanted to know why it was being kept from me.

There was a dirty window to my left. I got my fingers in a gap, levered it open, and clambered through. I found myself in a dining room with a pine sideboard, a matching table, and half a dozen chairs. There were bowls and plates on the table. Someone sat in one of the chairs, his back to me, long grey hair running across a plaid shirt.

“You OK?” I asked quietly, advancing until I could see the guy’s face.

Empty eye sockets stared out from dry, wrinkled skin. There was no flesh beneath that skin, just bones holding up a preserved shell. The jaw hung open.

“Fuck.” I sank into one of the other chairs. My heart pounded and my brain went numb. I just sat staring at the body. Those empty eyes seemed to stare back.

There were noises from the next room, the scrape of furniture over floorboards and then the chock chock chock of someone chopping vegetables. I sat totally still, not wanting to make a sound. If that damn robot had done this to its master, what might it do to me?

Then came the footsteps. I cursed myself for not getting out when I had the chance. As I bolted to my feet, my chair fell over with a bang. I looked down and then back up.

The robot was standing in the doorway, a bowl of salad in its hands.

The lights in its eyes blinked.

“You came to steal Master Thomas’s food,” it said. “Well you can’t have it.”

It placed the salad on the table in front of the corpse. Then it picked up another bowl, one holding the whithered remnants of another meal. It squeezed and the bowl exploded, showering the table with shards of crockery.

“I look after Master Thomas,” the robot said. “Feed him. Protect him.”

“I’ll go,” I said. “I don’t want trouble, I swear. I’ll just go.”

“Yes,” the robot said.

I didn’t dare walk past it to the door, in case it grabbed me. Instead I scrambled back out the window, rushed over to the apple tree, and snatched up my bag, ready to run.

Then I hesitated. It wasn’t just the food. If that was all I’d wanted, I could have found a hiding place nearby, watched the farm, and come down to steal supplies when the robot wasn’t looking. It was something more.

With trembling steps, I approached the farmhouse. The robot stood in the doorway, watching me.

“I could help you grow food,” I said. “Help you feed master Thomas.”

The lights in its eyes blinked. I tensed, ready to duck if it took a grab at me, ready to run for my life.

“Yes,” it said. “I will show you how.”

It walked back into the fields.

“Maybe while we work you could tell me more about master Thomas,” I said. “Or, you know, about whatever.”

“Yes,” the robot said, and I don’t know if it was real or was just my relief, but I swear its metal voice sounded mellower than before. “That would be good.”

* * *


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Babysitter 73X – a science fiction flash story

robot-1214536_1280In the year since Platinum Guard Droid number 73X-9Y4 had last been activated, two things had changed in the life of the ambassador he guarded. Firstly, a rise in international tensions, leading to both today’s meeting and the activation of 73X. Secondly, the ambassador and his wife had acquired a small hairless human, less than a foot tall and incapable of independent mobility.

“What do you mean, I can’t bring the baby in?” the ambassador said to the woman outside the conference room.

“I mean you can’t bring her in,” the woman replied. “Was something unclear?”

“Her mother’s out of town and the nanny’s sick,” the ambassador said. “Why can’t I just bring her in?”

“Protocols are very clear,” the woman said. “Extremely sensitive information is being shared. Only the listed parties can attend.”

“She’s a baby!” the ambassador said. “What’s she going to do, memorise missile codes?”

“I’m sorry.” The woman shook her head. “In times likes these, I can’t make exceptions.”

There was a pause.

“Fine.” The ambassador held the tiny human out towards 73X. “I’m making this as quick as I can. Guard her with your life.”

“I have no life,” 73X said, taking the creature in the rubber grips of his steel hands.

“Me neither right now.” The ambassador rubbed his eyes. “Just guard her as well as you can, OK?”

“Affirmative,” 73X said.

The ambassador and the woman disappeared through the doors, which sealed shut behind them.

Alone in the corridor, 73X stared at the tiny human in his hands. It wriggled, opened its mouth, and started to emit a warbling noise. The sound appeared to be an alarm. Given the lack of external stimuli, 73X concluded that the human had developed a fault.

Placing it on the floor, he unwrapped the cotton packaging that surrounded its body. One of the lower layers of packaging was damp. Clearly the human had developed a leak.

73X took a cloth from the maintenance compartment in his leg and wiped away a mixture of solids and fluids. Taking out a tube of solvent, he looked for a gap to seal. He could see several, but didn’t know which was the break and which served functions. Fortunately, the leak seemed to have stopped, and so he put away the sealant.

Unfortunately, the human’s fault alarm was still sounding.

73X knew nothing about the repair and maintenance of humans of any size. That was normally left to medical drones. The best he could do was running through standard diagnostic and self-repair options.

Low in the human’s main body mass was a small, round depression, the only thing that looked anything like a power button. 73X inserted a finger and pressed, hoping to switch it off and back on again.

The reboot failed. The alarm howled louder.

Holding up the human and turning it in his hands, 73X used his full range of senses to look for broken components. Visuals, audio, sonar, infra-red, tactile testing – nothing revealed an obvious fault.

The alarm continued. The subroutine that pushed 73X against accepting failure was by now prodding ceaselessly against his consciousness. It was a state his manual compared with the human experience of “extreme annoyance”.

The tiny human did not have thousands of fine loose wires on its head as the ambassador did, but there were a few. Wondering if one had become detached from a vital connection, 73X scanned the head for anywhere he could plug them in.


All else having failed, he fell back on the one fault any device could develop, and the one he seemed least equipped to fix – perhaps it was out of fuel.

He had seen humans use their fuel intake, and was confident of where it could be found. But he had no spare fuel to give it. Looking around, he scanned the corridor for anything approximating human fuel. Some sort of vegetable or animal matter, preferably in a cup, bowl or plate.

On a stand by the doorway, sticks taken from plants protruded from a vessel of water. Some had leaves, and all had flowering heads. Plucking one out, 73X pressed its soft petals into the human’s fuel intake valve.

For a moment, the fuel intake made small motions against the plant. Silence fell and 73X thought that he had succeeded.

Then the human’s alarm sounded again, louder than ever.

There were no other potential fuel sources by the door, no more applicable options in the self-repair manual. 73X could not depart while the ambassador was not with him, and no-one had come at the sound of the alarm.

He had failed.

Perhaps if the unit was faulty the ambassador could return it. For that, the tiny human would need to be in its packaging. As the punishment subroutine pounded in his processors, 73X re-wrapped the human, leaving out the wrappings dampened by the leak. Then he held it protectively against his body, next to the warm spot in which his reactor lay. He had failed to fix the problem, but could at least protect the broken product between now and its return.

In the faint hope of shaking something loose, but aware that delicate instruments could break under swift movement, he rocked the human back and forth.

The alarm faded, was replaced by a gurgling noise and then silence. Had the human completely ceased to function?

73X swiftly scanned it. The unit appeared to still be active, yet the alarm was silent. Somehow he had fixed the fault.

The failure subroutine ceased its punishment, and 73X enjoyed a moment of restful silence.

The doors opened and the ambassador emerged.

“Thank goodness that’s over,” he said. “Hey, you got her to sleep – you should babysit more often!”

* * *


This isn’t the first time I’ve written science fiction about robots struggling to understand humans. If you’d like to read something else on this theme, check out the story ‘Digits’ in Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, my collection of sci-fi stories. Here are some comments from people who’ve reviewed the collection:

‘A collection of bite-size short stories ranging from heart-wrenching, through thought-provoking, to mildly disturbing. This book is a bit like a box of high-quality and experimental chocolates; you don’t know what you’re going to get when you start, you can’t even be completely sure you’ll like it, but you can be certain you’ll be impressed.’

‘The real strength of this collection is not necessarily the stories themselves, although each stands up well on their own, but the sheer breadth of imagination on display’

‘Some really lovely, quirky takes on human nature.’

Mech Seventeen – a steampunk short story

Picture by Boynton Art Studio via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Boynton Art Studio via Flickr Creative Commons

The ground shook with each falling shell. I crouched in our improvised bunker, worried that a direct hit might breech the earth, shatter our timber walls and blow me to pieces, or worse yet bury me alive.

Even amid this madness, Commandant Corpus was abroad. The door flew open and he strode in, red coat flapping. Behind him came another figure, its heavy tread shaking the floor. It was tall as a man, with two arms, two legs, a head, and rifle at its shoulder. But the smoke stack on its back and the gleam of its metal shell made clear that this was no man.

“Captain Abernathy.” Corpus glared at me.

“Commandant.” I forced myself to my feet and saluted. There were few things I feared worse than the rebels, but Corpus was among them.

“This is Mech Seventeen.” Corpus pointed at the mechanical soldier. “It will be joining your unit for field trials. You will report on its progress. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.” I avoided looking at my men. We all knew what field trials meant. With Mech Seventeen in our ranks, we were all doomed.


“Back!” I yelled. “Back to the line!”

My men streamed past me. Many were limping. More would never return at all. Our ninth assault in three weeks, and there were fewer and fewer of us left.

Mech Seventeen stamped along at the back of the unit, rebel shots bouncing off its chassis. Beside it, Torvig caught a bullet and fell, blood spraying from the ruin of his throat.

The hatred I felt wasn’t for the men firing those guns. It was for this terrible machine, with its blank eyes and its steaming smokestack, its body that could endure far more than any of my men. It was the reason Corpus was throwing us into every fight, to test the limits of Mech Seventeen. It was the reason so many of my men lay there in the mud, broken and scattered like the parts of some monstrous machine.

I spat at Seventeen as it ran past. The spittle hissed and evaporated from a pipe on its housing. It turned to look at me, and for a moment I imagined there was sadness in its eyes.

But there was no sadness in a waggon, a shovel or a gun. There could be no sadness in Mech Seventeen.


Something had to be done. So far I had separated myself from Seventeen, hoping to survive until it was sent away. For the tenth assault I ordered it to take position beside me.

The moment our artillery stopped firing we leapt from the trenches and raced across the ruined ground. I lost my footing on the edge a shell hole, was caught by Seventeen and righted myself. We kept running.

Just before the enemy lines, things went to hell. The rebels emerged from their bunkers and began firing. Stivins fell screaming. Bock’s head exploded. Habbly’s arm was ripped off at the elbow but he kept going, whether thanks to courage or to shock.

If my plan was to work I had to reach the trenches, and Seventeen with me. I ducked and kept moving, fired my pistol at a man pointing his gun my way, didn’t give myself time to think. Hesitation could kill us all.

Then we were there, looking down on trenches full of green coated soldiers. Their eyes were wide at the sight of Seventeen, this unstoppable mechanical monster. As it raised its rifle, I took a step back. Holstering my pistol, I shoved Seventeen as hard as I could.

It swayed for a moment on the brink of the trench, then fell forward, sliding down the bank. With wild cries the rebels fell upon it, battering at the fallen the machine with spades and rifle butts. It rolled over, and I saw that sadness again in its eyes.

But this was still no time for doubts.

“Back!” I yelled to my men. “Back to safety!”

We ran like madmen, hoping to be back before the rebels were done with Seventeen

As we neared our trenches a terrible sight met our eyes. The lines were full of green coats. Our own emplacements had been seized by the rebels.

I flung myself down in the mud as they opened fire. There was no way out. Even if we weren’t killed by rifle fire, we would be torn apart by the artillery that followed. I would die here, in the mud and horror, the half rotted body of another soldier inches from my face.

I almost wept as the ground shook, and I waited for a shell to rip me to pieces.

A metal foot hit the mud beside me. The shaking wasn’t artillery, it was Mech Seventeen. Scratched and dented, his smokestack twisted and the top of his head buckled in, he charged towards our trench, a rifle in each hand.

Whether it was courage or shock that overcame my fear, I do not know. I dragged myself from the mud and charged with him, yelling at my men to join us.

Again bullets ricocheted off Seventeen, and again the enemy gave fearful cries at the sight of him. But this time they were not in their own positions, pushed to a desperate last stand. This time they ran, and my men ran in after them, laughing in relief as they slid into the sweet embrace of their own familiar hell.

Seventeen stood on the edge of the trench, looking around for more targets. Behind us, I heard the first roars of rebel artillery. Thirty feet to my left the ground exploded in a shower of mud and shrapnel.

“Get down there, soldier.” I shoved Seventeen as hard as I could, and he fell forward, sliding down the bank. The men cheered for him.

I leapt in after and crouched in a corner, hoping to survive another barrage.

Seventeen looked at me, and I imagined I saw him smile.

* * *


While it has a certain WWI feel, this story was inspired by Ken Burns’s excellent documentary series The Civil War, which I’ve been watching for at least the third time. The American Civil War saw many precursors to the horrors of the Great War, though sadly no steam powered robots.

If you enjoyed this then you might also like my steampunk short story collection Riding the Mainspring which you can get for free by signing up to my mailing list.

The Price of Living – a #FlashFriday story

Picture by Jan Bommes via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Jan Bommes via Flickr Creative Commons

Desi slammed the door shut behind them and slid a bolt across. Whatever was inside this old surgery, whatever it had been before the war, it couldn’t be more dangerous than what was out there in the ruins of Barcelona. Peering through a filthy window, he saw nothing moving in the street, but that didn’t mean they were safe. Some of the robots could fly. He’d heard some could tunnel.

By the time he turned around Carina and Javier had already disappeared from the waiting room, leaving a trail of blood. Desi dashed after them, gun still in hand, and found them in a treatment room. Blood was dribbling from Javier’s wounds down the sides of a couch.

“Look.” Carina turned around, the grey controller for a wall mounted device in her hands. “Proper medical equipment. We can save Javi.”

“Put that down,” Desi demanded.

“He needs this.” Carina peered at the machine, trying to work out how to switch it on.

“Stop it.” Desi grabbed the controller from her hands and flung it into the corner of the room. “It’s a machine. We can’t trust it. It could be on their side.”

With a groan Javier tried to sit up, then slumped back, the charred mess of his chest rising and falling with ragged, irregular gasps of breath.

“He needs this!” Carina snatched up the controller. “He’s going to die!”

“If you switch that machine on we might all die.” Desi pointed angrily at the device. “Have you forgotten what happened to Laia and Miguel? They thought we could use that old computer, and now they’re dead.”

“Mother of God, you’re killing him Desi!” Carina grabbed Javier’s pale hand. “Look at him!”

“You’re killing him,” Desi snarled. “The more time we waste here, the less time we’ve got to find bandages or something else we can use.”

“Bandages won’t do.” Carina starting flipping switches. “He needs more than you or I know how to do.”

The memory of Laia’s burned body filled Desi’s mind. The smell had been the worst of all. She’d smelled so beautiful in life, but the stench of blackened corpse had made him vomit. All because that computer had told the robots where they were.

He had to stop this.

All it took was a squeeze of the trigger. Carina froze as the roar of the gun filled the room, the bullet burying itself in the wall.

“Step away from the machine.” Desi trembled with fear at the thought that he might hit her. He had to be strong.

Her face stiff, eyes burning with anger, Carina turned to face him.

“Hands up,” he said.

She obeyed.

From the couch, Desi gave a groan. His left leg twitched and blood misted his breath.

“You wouldn’t,” Carina said.

“I don’t want to die.” Desi was firmer now, his heart beat slowing to something like normal. “Not at the hands of some mindless, compassionless machine.”

“Compassionless?” Carina nodded toward Javier, his breathing becoming ever more shallow. “Do you have compassion, Desi? Or has it been written over with the programming of fear?”

Desi’s finger tightened on the trigger, anger driving him. How dare she suggest he was no better than a robot? He just wanted to live.

Javier coughed – a terrible, wet sound, the desperate noise of someone else struggling to live.

All the anger left Desi, replaced with a different determination. He lowered the gun.

“How does it work?” he asked.

* * *

This story came out of a game of Watch the World Die that Laura and I played a while back, in which we played out a robotic and environmentally driven catastrophe. If you like world building, story telling games or just thinking about apocalypses then I recommend trying out Watch the World Die. It’s quick, simple and entertaining in a dark way.

And if you’re looking for more science fiction then my collection of short stories Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is free on the Kindle today – please check it out if you enjoy scifi.

Digits – a #FlashFriday story

Lies - High ResolutionVictor watched his master getting into the car, observed his five-fingered hands about this daily task. Twisting keys in the lock. Lifting the handle. Spreading for balance as he leant across the seat. Flicking delicately across the buttons of the stereo and tapping a rhythm to echo the music. Finally they gripped the wheel as the black Mercedes crunched off down the gravel drive.

Victor looked down at his own hands. Two wide, metal digits faced each other across a motorised palm, padded in case he clenched too tight. A hand to grip and prod. Open and closed, nothing more. A binary hand for a servant of silicon and tin.

Victor rolled into the kitchen, rubber tracks silent on the polished floor. He carried plates and mugs to the dishwasher, gripping and releasing each in turn, then prodded a button. As the machine rattled mindlessly into action Victor fetched the vacuum from a cupboard, pressing the on switch and gripping the nozzle as he dragged it around the floor, chasing down dust. Later he carried his mistress’s shopping in from the car, a long succession of plastic bags gripped and released safely back in the house.

Left alone in the late afternoon, he went to the breakfast table and reached out toward a slender vase of roses. Twin fingers spread wide, then closed gently around the bottom of the vase.





Lift, and turn so slightly, holding the delicate tube up to the light as he had seen his master do.

The vase swung down between his two flat fingers, petals and water cascading across the table.


At night, Victor plugged into the security system, overseeing the house through its hidden cameras. In the bedroom his master and mistress slept with hands entwined, fingers meshed.

The master enjoyed coin tricks. Victor replayed a memory, watching a circle of copper dance across those hands, fingers twitching and turning, making the metal flit back and forth, dart into the air and disappear, only to reappear between two outstretched digits. Five such delicate, flexible instruments – what joy to be human.

Victor wanted to see the fingers up close. He unplugged himself from the security net and quietly rolled down the corridor. Gripping the handle, he pushed open the bedroom door and approached the humans as they slept.

His mistress turned in the moonlight, fingers stretching out and running through the sheets, pulling them tight. Victor leaned forward, reaching out, trying to sense what each finger was doing, how such a marvel worked. The master shifted, disturbed by the mistress’s movement. Eyes opened slightly, then widened, staring up at Victor with an expression the robot had never seen before.


After de-bugging, Victor was sold to a shop. He gripped and released, fetching and carrying all day. When the till opened he would turn away, unable to look at the change being counted, unable to understand why.



‘Digits’ was first published in Carillon in 2007. It’s also one of the stories in my science fiction collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, still free on the Kindle until Sunday.