Herman perched his glasses on his nose, stared at the bottle of bathroom cleaner with the foamy suds on the label, and swerved his gaze to his beloved dog—the one giving him the mopey What-did-I-Do-To-Deserve-This? look—and realized his mistake.
It wasn’t the first time.
The week before, he had brushed his teeth with Icy-Hot, and the week before that he had poured half a bottle of liquid detergent down the drain thinking he was unclogging the sink. The fact that the dishes had smelled “springtime fresh” hadn’t helped in the least. The sink remained clogged until the plumber sent his snake coil five miles through underground terrain.
Each morning, when the news informed him that a new plague or disasters unlimited loomed, he figured that this was as good a time as any to make out a will. Dying was all too easy. It was living that made each day a challenge.
And so, when he met Chuck, he tried not to act surprised. Chuck looked perfect. He acted perfect. Up until the moment he froze in place. That wasn’t so perfect. Not the way he did it. Stock still. His hand caught in mid-air, holding the test tube just so. His eyes staring, blank, but as wide and as blue as ever.
After the last major world alteration—pandemic, economic crisis, collective emotional meltdown—whatever you want to call it, The University had decided that “State of the Art Androids” would assist human teachers in their laboratory work. No matter if the world was going to hell-in-a-hand-basket, students still needed the opportunity to practice medical procedures, carry out chemical experiments, and do a thousand things that simply could not be managed from home.
Reasonable? Of course.
Considering his record of late, Herman wasn’t surprised when his Department Head informed him that a new assistant, Chuck, would aide him as he maneuvered the entire scientific student body through the semester. To stiffen his spine, Herman reminded himself that his dog had recovered nicely and water ran through his sink lickity-split these days, with a refreshing scent to boot.
He spent the entire weekend before Chuck’s arrival assuring himself that an assistant meant more free time to do his own research. A positive step in the right direction. An honor! And NO risk.
When autumn rolled around and the school doors finally creaked open, Chuck calculated formulas, measured chemicals, laid out lab materials, and never broke anything. Never got mixed up. Never forgot which student he was dealing with or which experiment they were doing. Though his pronunciation did need a little work. Good thing scientists rarely giggle.
But last Wednesday, Chuck had a few internal issues, not gastric of course, just something a little off. He bumped Herman twice as they crossed paths in the lab, and he actually scowled at Lacy, the brightest student in the whole school, who had the unfortunate luck to break her arm. Chuck didn’t slow down for bumbling humans and didn’t smile at imperfections.
Lacy’s attempt at humor as she held up her sling-shod arm collided with Chuck’s long cold stare.
Herman glanced at Lacy; tears filled her eyes.
He had suspected for months that her heart had been beating a little faster whenever Chuck was in the room…but this kind of workplace awkwardness he had never imagined. Made soaping the dog with the wrong kind of suds seem almost funny.
What to do? It wasn’t like he could call Herman out for his icy demeanor, his lack of empathy, his calculated perfection.
But on Friday, Chuck stalled. Positively and undeniably froze in place.
Herman called the proper authorities. Nodded sympathetically when the Head of the Department broke down sobbing. Chuck had been a prototype. “A first, damn it! But not the last!” The Head Man had lifted his chin and thrown a determined glare directly at Lacy. As if her human indelicacy had pushed Chuck’s tightly wound synaptic system over the proverbial bridge.
After two men with a squeaky dolly wheeled Chuck away, Herman shrugged and considered the lab. Test tubes, beakers, Bunsen burners, metal trays, and laptops—various tools of the trade—and one lonely shrub decorated the sterile white room.
A crash and Herman knew in his heart-of-hearts that there was one less test tube.
He blinked at Lacy’s horrified face. A tear slid down her face.
He padded softly to her side and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.
She leaned in and sighed. “I can’t help it. I make mistakes.”
For the first time in months, Herman felt hope for the human race.