“I don’t understand, it was working just fine before you walked into the room,” said Paul. “I’m sorry about this, Doctor Caldwell, I don’t want to waste your time.”

“That’s okay, Paul. Let’s do this another time. I actually need the lab to myself. I have something rather urgent I need to clear up.”

Caldwell’s eyes moved to the apparently malfunctioning apparatus in front of Paul as the young scientist rebooted the software.

“I’ve seen you working on this in the past few weeks. What is it? Killer robot? Or at least a killer robot’s head?”

Paul pretended to smile. “Not quite. Giving its, um, face, a humanoid appearance just makes more sense in the context of our project. We’ve been teaching it, essentially, to mimic human facial expressions.” What Paul wanted to say next, he was sure, would elicit a more animated, dismissive reaction. So he did. “And duplicate human emotions.”

Caldwell said nothing instead, as the eyes in the robotic head met his and then seemed to look away. “Is that right?”

“The cameras record and register facial expressions, then transmit their interpretations to an array of servos and motors controlling the mouth, cheeks, eyebrows, etc.”

“Nice trick.”

“Well, that was just phase one. Phase two, which we’re in now, is about teaching it to form its own facial expressions. We’re past imitation and duplication. We’re experimenting with emotional responses to visual stimuli.”

Paul nodded to the wall-mounted screen and flicked through a succession of short video clips. Newborn babies. Volcanic explosions. Elephants murdered by poachers in Africa. “Eva, as we’ve named her, excuse me, it, can register joy, awe, sadness…”

“What is she registering now?” Eva’s eyes were darting between the floor and the wall opposite. Anywhere but where Caldwell was situated.

“If I had to guess, I’d say fear,” said Paul. He put his hands on his knees and leaned down to talk to Eva like it was a small child. “But there’s nothing to be afraid of here, Eva. It’s just Dr. Caldwell.”

“The unit’s been here all morning,” said Caldwell. “Running?”

“Yeah. Running. Recording. Dr. Travis was running some final tests before we took you through a demonstration, but I don’t know where he’s got to. His phone’s just ringing out and he’s not answering any texts or emails. It’s so odd.”

“It is,” said Caldwell. “The cameras record?”

“Of course,” said Paul. “Eva’s software processes the raw footage captured from them.”

“And this footage, where is it stored?”

“This machine,” said Paul, walking around to a laptop on the other side of the station. “Dr. Travis’s laptop. I’m going to have to see if I can restart Eva from it. My own computer isn’t having much success. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I can see what the hell he was up to with Eva before I got here to have her so upset.”

Caldwell shared a small laugh with him as he walked around to join Paul, watched him enter Travis’s password, and coiled his arm tight around the engineer’s neck, locking it in position with his free arm and using that same hand to drive the man’s neck into the crook of his elbow. He dropped to the floor, wrapping his legs around the younger man’s hips and not letting go of the choke hold until long after Paul had stopped moving. Long after the interruption of blood to the brain would have caused irreparable damage and, as it appeared now, death.

Caldwell stood up and found himself face to artificial face with Eva. “That expression looks like a mixture of shock and disgust,” he said, as he retrieved Travis’s body from under his desk. “Poor Paul. I knew exactly what he and Travis were working on. I just didn’t know how far they’d got. I don’t really think they knew the value of what they had. But now I do. Better learn to start smiling when you look at me, girl. It’s just you and me now.”

Flash fiction inspired by this article at New Atlas
Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

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