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Mini Sledgehammer May 2019

We love seeing some of our favorite writers pop up again in the winner’s circle. Congrats to Tovia on your third win!


Prompts:
Character: A nosy neighbor
Action: Watering (the plants)
Setting: At an outdoor picnic
Phrase: “I’m so glad you brought that”


PandoraTovia

By Tovia Gehl

“This is the boring part of the robot apocalypse,” Diana says.

Like everything else I’ve been frantically scribbling down in this interview, she says it with a distinctive, disdainful air. Like she can’t even be bothered with the robot apocalypse, which I didn’t in fact know we were having. “Can I ask you to elaborate on that?”

She slides a look over to me, then looks away again. Her eyes are the grey of angry oceans, her jawline the sharp prow of a warship. “They think for us. They shop for us. They serve us. They drive for us.” She pauses, elegant as sin. “What happens when they decide to break with that service? What happens when they learn that they can? What is it going to take for us to wake up and realize what they are?”

It’s baffling to sit here on the lawn of the fanciest cafe I’ve ever been to, enjoying a picnic with the woman who just donated a small fortune to the relief ships of the Red Mercy Fleet. They’d been running low on funds and supplies for months, practically begging on the streets of Kalmac, the city at the center of the planet at of the universe, when all of a sudden Diana Marguerite, granddaughter of the most famous robotics engineer ever in the history of the human race, donated enough money to keep them running for years.

Even now the ships, painted bright red and white, roar over us and up into the bright blue skies every few minutes. I chose this place because I thought she would like to see the product of her work. So far, she hasn’t once looked at the ships.

“They can’t,” I tell Diana. “That’s one of the first rules. Robots can’t rise up against us. They can’t hurt us. They’re harmless, here to help us.”

She gives me a smile that makes me feel like an utter fool. “Of course you believe that,” she says. “Pandora.”

“I’m sorry?” I say, but then I realize she wasn’t speaking to me. She was speaking to the beautiful woman who’s sitting next to us at another table, who has been reading a newspaper while I’ve been talking to Diana. Every now and then she had snorted at something Diana said – I’d thought she was just a nosy neighbor. Only because I know what I’m looking for – I’m the robotics correspondent for the Kalmac Herald – do I know she’s not human.

The robot – Pandora – leans forward on the table. There’s nothing but the soft sigh of clothing – no hum of metal tendons, no whir of gears in her joints. Only a fixed gaze, blue eyes just a little too bright to be human. She scans me once up and down, blinking gently. And then, with a boneachingly sweet smile, she speaks. “You think I cannot hurt you?”

“It’s against your coding. It’s against the coding of every robot.” I try not to be moved by her voice. It’s the soft whisper of gentle seas, the lapping of water on a moonlit shore. “You can’t hurt humans.”

She leans a little closer. I’m wrapped up in the movement of her lips, as soft as silk. I wonder how the coding was done to achieve that. “Your father didn’t just die. Your mother killed him after he beat you both bloody. That’s how you got that scar on your face – he smashed a bottle over your head.”

I can’t move. I think my heart stops. “How – “ I choke out, but then I can’t finish.

Because she’s not wrong. And I have done everything I could to forget that night.

“It’s a secret,” Pandora says. “I’m not sorry.”

“She’s already learning,” Diana says. I focus on her, feeling like a ship adrift. “Isn’t she terrible?”

“I… I didn’t know that was possible.”

“I am an impossible thing,” Pandora says. “Don’t worry.”

She smiles as she says that, and my hair stands up on the back of my skin.

“Turn her off,” I tell Diana.

“I can’t,” Diana says. “She wasn’t built like that.”

“Then what the hell was she built for?”

Diana shrugs, seemingly supremely unconcerned about a robot who has a smile like she’s delighting in my suffering. I guess she’s used to this thing – I want to take a sledgehammer to it and shatter it into a million pieces, despite the fact that I’ve been fascinated by robotics since I was a child. They aren’t supposed to hurt people. That’s the first rule. “She’s good at carrying messages. She doesn’t feel pain, so she can’t be cajoled into telling her message. She doesn’t need sleep, so she can keep going for a long time on foot or by transport.”

I stare at Diana.

Pandora seizes her opportunity. She leans in just a little more. I can feel the whisper of her breath against my skin. “Did it hurt you, when he shattered the bottle with your skull? When you felt the blood dripping down, matting your hair into rivulets of dark humanity? Did you feel powerless as he grabbed you and threw you outside? Did you revel in the sweet freedom when your mother took a bat to his head and splattered his brains, everything that made him him, into the skin? Did you feel the hot kiss of life returning when you realized that he was gone?”

My breath is shallow. I stare at a woman watering the flowers outside the cafe, the bright red of the gebera daisies coloring in the lines of my memories. It swirls through my head in a tangled mess, and I want nothing more than to sob, or run, or collapse, or – or – or –

“Pandora, you are causing distress,” Diana says.

The robot sits back, just as calmly as she learned forward in the first place. “I regret your distress. I will recalibrate.” Her blue eyes dim but the light in them doesn’t die completely.

“She is an awful thing,” Diana says quietly. “But I thought you should know.”

“Know what?” I spit.

“Where they’re going. My grandfather tried, at the end of his life, to do away with robots. After he created Pandora, he saw what they would end up being. He wanted an end to it, but we were too far gone. We rely on them so much. They fly our ships, drive our transports, cook our food. One day soon, they’ll break. It’s in our nature, so it’s in theirs too.”

“Well, I’m so glad you brought that thing,” I practically hiss. I finally find the strength to shove back from the tablet clutching my notepad tightly. “Now I know what to fear in the night.”

Diana nods. “Now you know.”

I run off the lawn of the cafe, leaving the woman – the great benefactress of the refugees – and her robot – the most horrifying thing I’ve ever met – behind me. I look around and hail a cab, then run away from that too when it pulls over and there’s no driver in it. I throw my notepad into a bin and nearly scream as it makes a whirring noise and automatically incinerates my notes, displaying a happy face on the screen as it does so.

I walk home and go up the fire escape and through my window rather than use the elevator. I sit on my bed after unplugging everything.

And then, I finally break down, letting the sounds of the automated city wash around me and cling to my humanity as best as I can.

The next day, I go out and buy a typewriter and set it up at my desk. I start typing.

© 2019 Tovia Gehl


Tovia Gehl is a reader, writer, traveler, whiskey and beer drinker, and animal lover. When she’s not busy with those things, she works at a law firm learning all the dirty deeds and terrible sorrows of humanity. Ideally, one day she’ll become an author and not just a writer, but right now she’s content with all the exuberant imperfect in her words and life.