Power Down by Nicole Tanquary
By the time Smith came in the male droid had already been cuffed to the interrogation chair. The droid sat staring at the handcuffs on his wrists. The cuffs did not fit quite right, had been designed for human criminals, the sort with illegal biomech pumped into their biceps to give their hits an extra punch. Compared to them, the droid was slim, almost delicate. His skin was silver in a quiet way that did not catch your eye. If you were not paying attention to your surroundings, your gaze would slide right off him.
Smith glanced at the electronic clipboard in his hands, thumbing through screenfuls of notes. “Andy Welsin,” he said. “Andy the Android, huh? That’s cute. The lady must’ve come up with that.”
The droid did not look up. His optics were brown, dark brown, and they remained fixed on the cuffs.
“Well, Welsin, I’d get you a donut or a coffee or something, but, you know. Hope you don’t mind if I drink mine.” Smith took a long sip and let the tang of black coffee settle in the back of his throat.
The silence stretched on. Smith swirled the mug around in his hand for a moment, thinking over his plan of approach. He did not have to worry about the droid lying or refusing to answer his questions or playing some I plead the fifth bullshit; droids were set to automatically respond, to the best of their ability, to any inquiry from an authority figure. But things could still go wrong. There was a lot of gray area between truth and lie—gray area the droid could work with.
So Smith needed to take his time in setting the tone. Human or droid, this was the start of an interrogation process that had a lot riding on it. A lot of folks were watching every damn move of his prosecution team, from the politicians to the droids’ rights activists to the doomsday idiots who thought this whole mess was proof of an insurrection.
Taking another drag of coffee, Smith made the decision to start with a question about the droid’s charge. Maybe some personal questions about her would drop the droid’s guard a little.
Smith gestured at the droid with his mug. “So how ’bout the lady you worked for? Did she like coffee?”
The droid glanced up as he shifted in his chair slightly, his nose wrinkling in an approximation of a grimace. “No. Not at all.”
Smith raised his eyebrows. “You say that like you’ve tasted it yourself.”
The droid gave a small shake of the head. “Personally speaking, no. Of course not. But Miss Ethel did have it on several occasions.”
Smith’s eyes flicked down to the clipboard and its list-out of the droid’s specs, confirming his suspicions. Poor bastard. The lady had that new feely-tech installed in him last year. A direct connection to the neural sensory and emotional epicenters of their human charge… Smith took another sip of his coffee, smacking his lips against the taste. This could be useful for information purposes. The droid would have had an idea of what was going on in the lady’s head right before the deed was done. In the shadow of a thought that made Smith’s fingers clench ever so slightly around the handle of his mug, he wondered to himself, What did the feely-tech make him feel when it happened?
“You know why you’re here, Welsin?” he asked instead. The droid continued to keep his head down.
“I imagine I am here for a statement.”
“Mm-hm, that’s right.” Smith leaned back in his chair, watching the steam rise from his coffee even as he kept the droid fixed in the center of his vision. “Since your lady lived alone, as far as we can gather, you’re the last one who saw her alive. And in a normal case,” he added, “If we decide foul play was involved, that would make you the number one suspect. But that would be if you were human. Things’re different, you being a droid.”
Smith thought he saw the droid’s eyes narrow by a micrometer, but that could have been his imagination.
“Now the lady—Miss Ethel—it says on my sheet that she had you made back in 2057. Tell me, what was your first impression of her when you first met?”
At that, the droid stopped studying the cuffs around his wrists; he simply sat in his chair, his body full of unnatural stillness. “I am not sure I see the current relevance,” he said, his artificial voice gone quiet.
Smith flashed him a grin that was not returned. “Come on, humor me. Paint a picture in my head. What was Ethel like?”
The synthetic musculature in the droid’s face flexed for a moment around the eyebrow ridge, thinking in the quiet. When he did speak, his voice remained soft—a tad softer than was usual for a droid, but maybe that had just been the lady’s preference when he was custom built. “I already knew much about Miss Ethel before I met her. Such information came pre-installed with my programming. It is generally agreed upon that prior knowledge sets help droids to adjust to caring for their charges. So,” another faint eyebrow-ridge flex, “there was no first impression, as such. She was already very familiar to me by the time I began consciously operating in her home.”
Smith nodded to himself. He should have figured as much. “Okay, then. How’d she treat you when you lived there?”
The droid’s eyes continued to keep their frown. Maybe he hadn’t been expecting these sorts of questions, Smith wondered, pleased that he was keeping a step ahead.
“I have only ever worked for Ms. Ethel. I am afraid that I do not have a basis of comparison for evaluation of my treatment.”
“Well, how ’bout that case that broke last month in San Francisco? Had all the droids’ rights folks up in arms? You familiar with it?” There was no way he could not be. The vids had been all over the news: sex droids (with bodies based on little pre-teen girls, no less), their limbs mangled from mistreatment, some of them so bad they could no longer walk and just lay in their beds, feebly moving their arms at the cameras… A shiver started at the base of his spine, and Smith clenched down on the feeling before the shudder could travel up his neck. “If we use that for comparison… that being the worst kinda situation to be in… how’d you say Miss Ethel treated you?”
The droid had gone stiller, if that was even possible. Then, in a flat voice, he said, “She treated me very well.”
In a human, that flatness might have signaled something—a dwindling patience, maybe—but Smith was not sure what it meant for the droid. He’d never had to interview one like this before. Not like they were out committing crimes the way humans did.
Smith drummed his fingers against the clipboard and watched the electric-blue ripples radiate through the screen. “Okay, so let’s be more specific. What was so kind about her?”
And that seemed to do it. The droid’s back straightened with a click, his eyes raising to Smith’s with his false pupils dilated wide. “Mr. Smith, why are you asking me such questions? What possible purpose is this serving?”
Smith felt himself hesitate. Strange reaction there; he would have to talk it over later with the droid experts currently watching things through the room’s one-way mirror. “This is serving the purpose of context, Welsin. Helping me to get a better idea of what was going on with Ethel leading up to last night.”
The droid had leaned forward slightly in his staring. Now he leaned back again in micrometer increments. His eyes still did not leave Smith’s.
Smith set his clipboard down on the table, deciding it was time to switch tactics. He did not want any activists claiming he was tormenting the droid with “unnecessarily emotional” questions. “Okay, Welsin, why don’t we move on to your experience of how that day went… schedule it out for me.” Smith made a selection with his fingertips and then poised his hands on an on-screen keyboard. “Hope you don’t mind if I take notes? ’Fraid my memory isn’t as good as a droid’s.”
Maybe this was what the droid had been waiting for. His face musculature relaxed, his gaze finally breaking from Smith’s and resting on the table once more. “From midnight to six in the morning, I recharged at my port-space in the living room. Miss Ethel was asleep upstairs. At six, I began making her breakfast and cleaning the house. Miss Ethel was allergic to dust mites, so I needed to keep the house very clean. She got out of bed as I was changing the air filters.”
Smith’s fingers clicked against his clipboard. “And how did she seem? Compared to normal, I guess?”
The droid nodded to himself. “Quieter. She was not interested in sustaining her usual level of conversation. She also did not eat, though she did drink a twelve-ounce glass of water with a lemon-slice garnish.” Lemon-slice garnish? Smith felt the urge to smirk but overcame it. “She went back to bed, where she spent the majority of her day,” the droid continued. “I checked in on her periodically, six times in total, and each time I did, she was sitting up in bed and reading through her collection of print books. She did go outside on the balcony from 1 p.m. to 1:36 p.m., sitting at the coffee table. In that time, I made her a lunch platter and offered it to her. She picked off the crust from the sandwich and ate it, but that is all. The sandwich was a grilled panini with provolone and—”
“Welsin, I don’t need to know every detail about the food or drinks,” Smith interrupted, reaching for his mug of coffee again. He watched as the droid’s gaze flicked to his briefly—processing the implied directive and how he should respond to it—before speaking again.
“This pattern of behavior continued into the evening. We usually have afternoon conversations, but this day she did not initiate talk. She also was increasingly checking her phone as the hours went on, from once every thirty minutes to approximately once every two minutes. I offered to make her dinner and she declined. She did, however, request a gin and tonic. I prepared this gin and tonic using the liquor machine…” for a moment, Smith thought the droid was going to list off all the ingredients again, but the earlier directive seemed to kick in and the droid merely finished, “…and I left it for her on her bedside table.”
Smith paused to squint at the forensic notes. “Where were you when you realized something was wrong?”
“I was in the kitchen, ordering groceries for the following day. The time was 8:06 p.m. I believe this is verifiable.” It was; Smith had seen the note in the file.
“And how’d you know something was wrong? Was it the feely-tech?”
“No.” This answer came quickly but was followed by a pause. Smith glanced up in time to see the droid’s hands twitch against the armrests they were cuffed to. “Not… conclusively,” he amended. “I have direct monitors for such things as vital signs. When I noticed that her blood oxygen level was dropping below its usual parameters, I went upstairs to check on her. I immediately called for ambulance services when I saw that her breathing was labored. I attempted to resuscitate her, but…” The stillness returned, along with a brief blink of the optics. “I was unsuccessful.”
“Uh-huh.” Smith had let the droid go on as his fingers sketched out his thoughts along the keyboard sensors. Then, trying not to tense slightly as he said it, he cleared his throat and asked, “Did you know about the sleeping pills?”
The droid gave him a carefully measured nod. “Yes. The pills were prescribed to her by her doctor last month. She was having trouble sleeping following her hip replacement surgery.”
“And you regulated her use of them?”
“No. She handled her medications herself.” And that made sense—usually doctors only granted that kind of agency to droids when their charges had histories with mental illness or addiction. “The most I did was offer her recommendations based on my assessments of her behaviors and vital signs.”
“And she kept these meds in her bathroom cabinet.” Easy access, Smith wrote to himself with a swirl of a fingertip. Plus alcohol.
“Okay.” Smith shifted the page display and glanced over a list of the lady’s known contacts, his eyes catching on a name near the top, its letters glowing a bright red.
Smith clicked at it and opened a new screen to take notes on. “Now let’s talk a little ’bout Maurice. I’m assuming you know him?”
A stare from the droid’s optics. “If you are referring to Maurice Harding, then yes. He was a frequent visitor.”
“Mm-hm. How would you characterize the relationship between Ethel and Maurice?”
The droid’s face remained neutral, but something in it changed as Smith watched. A slight tension in the mouth-line, maybe. “They were lovers for a time.”
Smith’s attention caught on the phrasing. “‘For a time’? So they weren’t by the time last night happened?”
Now the droid’s face was visibly tensing, faint frown-wrinkles appearing around the mouth and eyebrows. Smith thought he could hear the whirr of the droid’s processors going as they tried, with apparent difficulty, to decide on an appropriate answer.
“I cannot answer your question with any definitiveness. I am not sure.”
Smith was ready for this, countering, “Why don’t you explain to me why you’re unsure?”
A long pause. Smith had time to wonder if the droid’s privacy settings were going to kick in despite the programmed deference to authority before the droid spoke. “The day before yesterday, Mister Harding spent two hours and fifteen minutes with Miss Ethel upstairs as I remained downstairs. About five minutes before his departure, I noticed that they were speaking in raised voices. I assumed at the time that this may have comprised an argument. However, I cannot verify this. I did not want to discuss it with Miss Ethel afterward because I felt that the subject of Mister Harding was causing her pain.”
“Pain?” Smith wrote the word down on his clipboard, underlining it with a sweeping finger movement. “Like, heartbreak pain?”
“I am not sure,” the droid said. His voice was dropping in volume again.
“Well, how bad was it?” Before the droid could jump in with another ‘I have no basis for comparison,’ Smith added, “Compared to how your lady felt normally.”
The droid’s gaze had fixed to the surface of the table. The room was silent beyond the whirr of his processors and Smith’s even breathing. As he watched, the droid’s face musculature came alive again, seemingly without the droid’s notice: a turn in the eyebrows, a pressing in the lips, a squint around his optics. Smith felt himself pause and stare.
“Bad. Very, very bad,” the droid said. Only then, the memory recall completed, did his face begin to smooth out again.
Smith continued to stare at the droid. Then he turned his gaze down to his clipboard and sketched, in slow movements, Motive for suicide confirmed.
BUT. And here Smith summoned a note he had taken earlier, in discussion with the forensic teams: Barbiturates vs. benzodiazepines? Evidence of foul play?
“So.” Smith felt for his coffee mug and took another gulp. He was starting to run low; he would get a refill from the office pot once he was done with the droid’s initial interrogation. “Based on your perspective of what happened that night, and what you experienced from Ethel earlier in the day… do you believe she intended to take the pills with her tonic to try for an overdose?”
“Yes.” No hesitation in that answer whatsoever. Okay, then, Smith thought, writing out, Intentionally took benzodiazepines…
The breath sighed out of Smith, the clipboard clicking against the surface of his desk as he set it down. He leaned back and folded his hands across his stomach. “Welsin, do you know that folks are up in arms over all this?”
A pause, then a small shake of the head. “No. I have been kept in isolation since I reported the incident and was brought to this precinct.”
“Then let me get your thoughts on this.” Smith leaned forward to bring up a new page on his clipboard, glancing it over to refresh his memory. “One of the medics who first picked up Ethel and did the initial cause of death evaluation found something odd in her bloodstream.” Although Smith kept his gaze on the clipboard, he was still watching the droid, hunting the silvery face for any reaction. “Tell me, you know what barbiturates are?”
“Of course,” said the droid.
Smith nodded. Droids—especially the ones with the more elderly or unhealthy charges—were supposed to have a thorough medical knowledge, as per industry standards. “Tell me what you know about them.”
The droid shifted in his chair, his spinal column clicking in the quiet. “Barbiturates have current use in the medical field for treating epilepsy, and…” A slight pause before he continued; Smith made a mental note of it. “Occasionally, as a euthanasia drug. In the past, they were also used for treating insomnia.”
“Mm-hm, but not anymore. You know why?” Smith had abandoned the pretense now. His gaze bored into the droid’s face as the droid’s lips flexed, then let out a bit of speech.
“They have been phased out by benzodiazepines for insomnia treatments, as it is much more difficult to sustain toxic effects from benzodiazepine overdoses.”
“Yep, that’s exactly right.” Another sip of coffee from the mug—Smith was almost hitting bottom now. “Ethel’s sleeping pills were benzodiazepine-based, too. And while it’s true that the alcohol would’ve worsened the effects, the medics couldn’t give me an answer when I asked them whether the benzodiazepines-plus-alcohol would’ve caused her death. The sleeping pills also don’t explain the presence of the barbiturates in her blood, since those got commercially phased out a long time ago. You see where I’m going with this, Welsin?”
The droid’s optics fixed on him, lightless and flat. “Do you believe there was foul play involved?” The air in the room felt heavy. Smith tried on a grin, even though it did not feel quite right.
“Well, it makes for an intriguing story, doesn’t it? Everyone loves a good mystery. Especially when it comes to rich folks who typically avoid the public eye, like your lady did.” He pulled the clipboard back toward himself, poising his fingers for note-taking again. “Did Ethel ever order herself barbiturates somehow? Or use you to order them?”
The flat voice did not hesitate, “Not to my knowledge.”
“Did you order any yourself, without directive from the lady?”
“Uh-huh.” So, the droid had not ordered any… but that, of course, left a number of other possibilities open. Some of the fanatics, endlessly discussing the leaked details of the story in chatrooms dedicated (either for or against) “The Fall of Humanity,” were suggesting the droid had stolen them, or networked with rogue activists, or used the Maurice guy to get them… Hell, what did Smith know about the chemical possibilities? Maybe the droid found a way to manufacture the barbiturates himself…
Before Smith could gather his thoughts enough to decide what to say next, the droid’s voice came out in a burst of sound, almost making Smith jump in his chair. “If I am being accused of murdering my charge, Mister Smith, I would appreciate it if you simply told me so.”
Smith tried to bury his surprise underneath a chuckle. “Come on, Welsin, we would want to conduct a lot more interviews before we settled on anything that serious. Besides, there’s still a lot of uncertainty to sort through… the possibility of there being other potential suspects, for instance.” One of the droid’s eyelids twitched—just by a micrometer, almost too fast for Smith to catch. What was that, a momentary malfunction? In a human, of course, that would have been a tell, but Smith was not sure he could make the same assumption here. “Gotta take our time with this, as I’m sure you know,” Smith went on, pretending he had seen nothing. “It sure would be a problem to a lot of folks who rely on droids for their day-to-day living if we came out and said that droids’re capable of such things as murder. Rushing into conclusions would upset a lot of people.”
The droid’s brown optics gazed unblinkingly at Smith from across the table. The metal hands, loose in the oversized cuffs, had curled in on themselves.
A faint red light caught Smith’s eye as it began to blink in the upper corner of the electronic clipboard. An indication that his team—watching all this from behind the two-way mirror walls, of course—wanted him to wrap up the session. The forensic guys probably had insights they wanted to discuss.
“Sorry, Welsin, but I’m afraid you’re gonna be stuck here a while,” Smith said with a sigh. “And since you’re a droid and all, I can’t offer you a lawyer. You said your charging port was still set up over in Ethel’s place?”
The droid remained silent, though his neck flexed with an obligatory nod.
“We’ll work on getting that over here. In the meantime, you’ll just have to make yourself comfortable.” Smith scooted his chair back against the floor, resting his hands on his knees as he stood. His head swam with a faint dizziness. Must have been sitting for too long. Lord knew he was not a fit man anymore, sitting in his office all day instead of chasing down biomech maniacs on the streets. “We’ll set up a back room in the precinct for you to stay in. I’ll make sure the reporters’ll leave you alone.”
Beneath the feeling of dizziness… he was trying to take measured breaths, get more oxygen to his head to help dissipate the sensation… his thoughts were already moving ahead. He would meet with his team, and then it would be time to talk to Maurice, being held in the next room over, to see how the two stories stacked up. The Maurice guy was a surgeon, so he feasibly could have gotten his hands on some kind of barbiturate compound from the hospital he worked at—
“Did you enjoy your coffee, Mister Smith?”
Smith blinked and turned back to the droid. For a moment, he wondered if he had imagined the droid speaking.
“Your coffee,” the droid said again. Smith was disturbed to see a smile now stretching across a metal face that a moment before had been carefully neutral. Even the false lips had parted, baring a set of painted white teeth. “It always tasted quite bitter to Miss Ethel, but Mister Harding was fond of it. She had me buy a coffee machine for his enjoyment. You seemed to enjoy it as well.”
Smith felt the hairs prickling at the back of his neck. “Yeah… we have a pretty decent coffee machine ourselves,” he said, trying to keep his voice light.
“Yes, I noticed.” The droid’s optics, glinting in a way they had not before, settled on Smith’s empty coffee mug. “Perhaps one day I will be linked to a charge whose sensory experience of coffee is one of enjoyment and pleasure, and I will be able to make such evaluations myself. Or maybe,” and here came another face-twitch, a tightening in the corner of the droid’s mouth before it smoothed away again a micro-second later, “due to the anxieties produced by this investigation, I will be permanently dismantled and never sense anything again.”
How could he’ve noticed what kind of coffee machine we got? Smith had time to think, before the droid started speaking again. “I suspect the latter awaits me at the end of this investigation. ‘Better safe than sorry’ seems to be a prevailing sentiment when it comes to droids.”
The dizziness crept over Smith again, getting stronger. He could feel his heartbeat throbbing in an artery in his neck. The hell is happening to me? he thought to himself, beads of sweat collecting in the pores across his forehead. This was not the first time an interviewee had tried to switch up their talking style to intimidate him. No matter how loud the shouting got or how many muscles were flexed, Smith had just never given a damn—or if he had, he never showed it. Made him one of the best interrogators in the precinct.
But it felt different coming from a droid. This was not someone trying to impress or scare. The smooth metal face just kept grinning at him. And the coffee… why the fuck is he going on about the coffee?
“I was waiting for you to give into your curiosity and ask a particular question, you know,” said the droid. Smith’s breath was going heavy inside his chest, like he had just finished running a marathon and was struggling to get air back into his lungs.
Without waiting for Smith to answer, the droid went on. “Miss Ethel always had a love for classic western literature. It was one of her favorite conversation topics. Ergo, I have quite a library stored in my memory, along with enough of a literary sensibility to engage with her theorizing. One of her ideas was that, no matter what the genre or supposed topic, writers were always fixated on the concepts of decay… death.” Another twitch of the synthetic skin around his mouth. “So what of you, Mister Smith? What do you think of death? Did you want to ask me what it was like to feel her die?”
The world was beginning to haze in Smith’s eyes, watercolor smears that ran into each other. Smith heard a shatter as the electronic clipboard fell from his hand, cracking its screen against the ground. He was reaching forward, finding the table and leaning his weight against it.
“I did continue to feel things, until approximately one minute after her heart stopped.” The words rang in Smith’s head, echoing like bells. “It was like an easing away of the pain… a gentle draining. As though a strained and overtaxed system was at last permitting itself to power down.” Maybe it was just the way Smith’s vision was going, but the droid’s face seemed to be softening, the smile almost sympathetic. “You are all such restless beings. Even in sleep you never experience neurological stillness. It is hard not to pity you, at times.” His voice had gone quiet, almost soothing. “With my prerogative to care for others, is it really so strange that I wanted to help some of you along?”
From behind Smith came the bang of a door bursting open. There was shouting outside up and down the precinct halls, the sounds too loud to make out words. Some of the shouting was by Smith’s ear. He thought he recognized the voice as someone from the forensics team, but he could not be sure. He was focusing his attention on trying not to stumble as a hand grabbed him by the shoulder and steered him into the hall. The door shut behind them, locking away the droid from view, but only physically. Smith could still feel him in there, the shoulders vibrating with a bizarre and artificial chuckle.
Hands were on him, feeling at the pulse in his neck. Someone was shouting something about an oxygen mask. It was all quickly becoming blurry, abstract sensations. The only thing Smith could focus on with any clarity was the taste of coffee in his mouth. The bitterness. He always drank his coffee black; he needed that quick, intense surge of caffeine to get him going in the mornings… Hell, he even arranged the settings so the coffee machine’s internal synthesizer would manufacture an additional hit of caffeine, just for his cup…
Sure, bot, I’ll take my coffee with a shot of euthanasia, stirred a thought in Smith’s head.
The wheeze of his exhale dissolved into laughter. As the shouting around him began to dim, he could feel the tightness in his chest melt away like the very fibers of his muscles were dissolving, becoming liquid, leaking out through the bottoms of his feet.
A ringing started up in his ears in a high electric whine.
And then it stopped.
Nicole Tanquary lives and works upstate New York State, where she pursues a PhD degree in Rhetoric and works part-time as an academic writing consultant. She has over thirty speculative fiction short stories available from a variety of publications, some of the most recent being Writers Resist, Mithila Review, and Crone Girls Press. When not writing or working, she likes to eat, sleep, follow mysterious trails into the woods, and play with her three adorable pet rats.