Hey! It looks like you're new here. You might want to check out the introduction.

Eye of the Storm · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000


The following prizes are courtesy of horizon and Trick Question:

  • $25 USD to 1st place
  • $15 USD to 2nd place
  • $15 USD to 3rd place
  • $20 USD to the top placing entrant who has never entered a Writeoff before

A complete detailing of the prizes on offer is here.

Show rules for this event
The Girl and Her Robot
Brrr, K-chunk! Click!

The ‘bot turned its gaze back at Dorothy, for what felt like the hundredth time that afternoon. It sat there, making that whrrrrrl-ing sound that father told her meant that it was thinking very hard. Then—just like the ninety-nine times before—its gaze wandered elsewhere.

K-chunk! Click!

Dorothy tried very hard to keep reading her book or, at the very least, to pretend that she wasn’t paying attention to the ‘bot. It becoming more and more difficult for her to keep herself from taking her eyes from the page.

For a moment, she nearly forgot about how it was sitting in that far corner of her bedroom. She had just reached the end of the page and was about to begin the next, but then—

Whrrrrrrrrrrrl! K-chunk!

Dorothy threw her book against the wall. Its spine broke, and many of the pages came unbound, flipping and flapping through the air like leaves falling from the trees in the arboretum. The girl didn’t care; she decided that it was a terrible book anyway. But not as terrible as the ‘bot.

Its eyes click-click-clicked as they focused and refocused on the billowing sheets of paper, but no other part of it moved an inch. When everything had settled, it just stayed there, staring at the ruined book on the ground and making its thinking noise.

“Well, don’t you do anything?” asked Dorothy. She crossed her arms.

“I don’t understand,” it spoke with a tapping, warbling voice. “Is there something you want me to do?”

Its response only made Dorothy’s frustration at it grow even more.

“I want you to stop being a worthless tin can!” she said.

For the first time, the ‘bot almost seemed to react. Those plastic brows on its round, blank face pressed up against each other, and its head tilted.

“I’m sorry. Have I done something to offend you?”

Dorothy just turned away from it. All her hot anger was rushing up to her ears, and she bit her tongue so hard that she thought she might bleed. The ‘bot was thinking loudly behind her, and it was harder to ignore it without the book.

“Father and mother think that they can fix it all with you,” she said. “But they can’t.”

“Fix what?” it asked, simply.

Dorothy didn’t feel like answering. She picked up her eye protection from her desk and walked out the door, making sure that she didn’t look back at the bot.

As she made her way down the stairs, she heard her mother laughing in the living room. It meant that father must be on the screen again. Maybe they won’t be paying attention. Dorothy thought that she could get outside without mother noticing.

But the instant she tried to dart into the hallway that leads to the door, her mother’s voice rang out from across the room.

“Dorothy? Are you going out again?”

“No,” she said.

But her mother saw the goggles in her hands, and she frowned.

“You shouldn’t lie to me, Dorothy. And you shouldn’t be going out at this hour.”

“Mary, don’t be cross with her.” Father’s voice came from the speakers.

Dorothy turned to the screen. She saw the familiar sight of her father’s bunk on his ship, with more bunks lined up and down the walls. Father’s short, brown hair was floating and there were straps to keep him in bed, because there was no gravity in the sleeping quarters of his ship.

“Hi, ‘Thee,” he said, waving as much as he could. “How are things on the ground?”

Dorothy looked down and shrugged.

It was a while before her father responded. His ship must be far away.

“C’mon, don’t be grumpy. Your nose gets bigger when you’re grumpy,” he teased.

“It doesn’t,” she said.

Another pause while the both sides waited for the light-lag.

“I’m not kidding! You should get a mirror and see for yourself,” he joked. He grinned. Father was a handsome man, and Dorothy’s mother always said his smile was enough light to read by.

“Where are you going, ‘Thee?” he asked.

“To see the trees,” she answered. It was the same answer as always.

“Okay, honey.” Father’s eyes turned towards her mother. “Let her go out, Mary. She could use some fresh air.”

“But Phillip, it’s going to be dark soon.”

“Have her take the ‘bot, then. It can guide her home.” Father smiled again. “She’s been there and back a million times, now. What are you afraid of?”

Dorothy’s mother pinched her nose and sighed. “Okay, Dorothy, take your ‘bot with you.”

“I don’t like the ‘bot,” said Dorothy. “It’s dumb, and it only sits still.”

“That’s because it’s a new one, ‘Thee,” her father said. “It’s still learning everything. Give it some time. Take it out to see the trees; I think it’d like that.”

“I don’t think it can ‘like’ anything,” Dorothy rebutted.

“Come on, ‘Thee. Would you do it for me?” Father gave her a lopsided grin and he winked.

“Fine.” Dorothy relented. “I’ll take the dumb ‘bot.”

“That’s my baby girl.”

“I’m not a baby, I’m eleven now.”

“I know—I know,” he said. “Now go get your ‘bot.”

Dorothy turned and walked back up the stairs to her bedroom. At the top, she could hear the ‘bot’s joints clicking and turning. It was probably up to something.

When she opened her door, she saw the ‘bot sitting on the floor near the bed, scattered pages and torn book in hand. It was flipping through the hardcover novel, carefully slipping pages back into their spots. Its fingers didn’t shake, but the way they moved so slowly and so awkwardly reminded Dorothy of a baby.

“Come with me, ‘bot,” she said simply.

The ‘bot turned his head to Dorothy again (K-chunk! Bhrrrrr!) and stood up and put the book down on Dorothy’s nightstand. A page slipped out and fell back to the floor. It looked at the page for a little while, and then began to slowly, clumsily bend over to pick it up. It’s arms were long and thin; spindly like a spider’s legs.

“Leave it,” Dorothy commanded when she became frustrated at its slowness. She turned and headed down the stairs, while the ‘bot’s plodding footfalls sounded out from behind her.

As she came through the living room, her father waved to her again.

“Goodbye, ‘Thee.” He kissed his fingers and pressed them up to the screen.

“Stay safe, honey,” said her mother.

“Okay,” said Dorothy as she grabbed a fresh cotton mask from the box by the door. She slipped it over her mouth and her nose, and then she put her dark-tinted goggles over her eyes. Then she grabbed her coat and zipped it up.

“Come along, ‘bot,” she keyed the first door and stepped through it, holding it open for the big, bumbling figure behind her. This side of the airlock was always so sandy from outside, no matter how much her mother swept it. When they were both through, she wrapped her hands around the handle of the second door and pulled the heavy lock open.

A rush of dry, frigid air whistled past her as she pried the door open. She motioned for the ‘bot to go through before she went, herself, and allowed the door to clamp shut behind her.

Dorothy hated the outside, here. The air was too cold and too thin. The sun was too dim, and she had to wear goggles that made it even darker. It was ugly, too. There was nothing but brick-red sand on top of brick-red dirt. The street was a row of white, metal buildings sticking out of the red, red ground. A few other masked and goggled figures strode from house to house.

The people who lived here said that it was getting better every day. They seemed to be so proud of the fact that everyone needed to wear their goggles for just a few more years. Whenever she complained about the cold or the air, they’d always say, “But it used to be worse!” They didn’t understand. Outside is supposed to be pleasant, not just tolerable.

The arboretum’s big, glass dome poked out from just under the hill that their house was sitting at the foot of. It wasn’t a very long walk, but it was always a hard one. It took about half an hour to make her way up the hill, because Dorothy had to stop and catch her breath so often.

She hated it. You’re supposed to be able to run when you’re outside.

When Dorothy finally reached the arboretum’s door, it was locked. But that was okay, she knew the after-hours code. One of the gardeners, Mr. Pierre, had given it to her, after he had asked her why she visited so often. She had told him that it was because it reminded her of home, and he understood. He grew up on a farm in France, so of course he understood.

The airlock hissed as she opened it and stepped inside the pressure chamber. She shook herself off, getting as much of the red sand off of her clothes and out of her hair as she could. Turning, she also patted it off of the ‘bot. Dorothy didn’t like the idea of a speck of the dirt from outside making its way to where the trees were.

When she was satisfied that the both of them were sand-free, she keyed the inner door and pulled it open. Warm air rushed out to greet her, filling her nose with a fragrance of dirt and grass and water. She sighed through her nose and walked in, pulling off her goggles and her mask.

There were only a few kinds of trees that could live here. Thin willows and tiny maples grew in a field of pale, grainy grasses. The gardeners even let some insects live here—there were a few crickets and small flies. It wasn’t quite like home, but it was the closest thing that Dorothy had.

She took off her jacket and dropped it on the ground; there was nobody else here. Making her way to her favorite spot, she sat down in the crumbly dirt and leaned against a little pine tree. There was a sprinkler nearby that was just close enough to let her feel a gentle mist without getting too cold or wet.

Dorothy almost forgot about the ‘bot until it sat down next to her with a clank. She cringed.

“You’re loud,” she said. “Can I turn you off until I’m ready go to home?”

The bot tilted its head.

“Much of my memory is volatile.”

Dorothy scrunched her nose. “You would explode?”

“No,” it said. “Not volatile in the chemical sense. My memory would be lost if a loss of power were to occur.”

“So you’d forget everything?” Dorothy asked, curious.

“I have a cache of hard-written storage,” it said. “I can store a few very important things there, if I need to. But not much.”

“Okay,” Dorothy said. “I won’t turn you off, then. Can you be quieter, though?”

“I will try,” it said. It folded its legs underneath itself, and curled into a little ball. The posture helped muffle the whrrrl-ing sounds from its chest.

Dorothy turned away and looked up at the sun. It was so small—so far away. It was hard for her to imagine that this cold little star was the same one from back home.

From a little ways away, a cricket chirped by itself. It would stop for a few minutes, and then begin again from a new place. Or maybe it was a different cricket. Dorothy couldn’t tell, but the song was nevertheless welcome.

Dorothy closed her eyes and began to doze off, with the feel of the dirt beneath her and the noises of moving leaves above her. She didn’t remember what she dreamed about, but it left her feeling odd and happy and sad all at the same time.

When she opened her eyes again, it was dark.

The arboretum’s heat lamps were on, bathing the trees in a dull orange light. Little drops of water had accumulated on Dorothy’s face and in her hair as she slept. She was about to reach up and brush them away when she noticed the ‘bot sitting next to her.

It was holding out an outstretched arm, and on an extended finger was a cricket. The insect spun one way, then the other as it explored the metal and plastic surface. The ‘bot, on the other hand, held itself perfectly still as its eyes clicked like shutters and its brain hummed like a bee.

Dorothy watched, captivated, until a bit of water rolled down her forehead and into her eye. Reaching up, she brushed her face with her sleeve.

The sudden motion startled the cricket, and it hopped away. The ‘bot lowered its arm and turned its head to face Dorothy. The look it gave her was the same one it had when it was studying the cricket. It was a bit strange, but at the same time, Dorothy got the feeling that it wasn’t upset at all. It actually seemed glad, somehow.

“Do you have a name, ‘bot?”

“No, I do not,” it replied.

“Well, you ought to. Can you think of a name for yourself?” she asked.

The ‘bot’s insides whrrrrrrrrrrl’d and clicked.

“How about Cricket?” it suggested.

Dorothy snorted. “That isn’t a proper name. You have to pick a real one.”

Again, the bot spent a moment to think.

“How about Nemo?”

Dorothy suddenly remembered the book she had thrown.

“Like Captain Nemo?” she asked. “You read the book?”

“Yes,” it said, simply.

“Okay. I guess ‘Nemo’ sounds nice.” Dorothy stretched her arms and legs. “Do you know what time it is, Nemo?”

The ‘bot clicked and tilted its head, as if it were getting used to its name.

“Yes. The local time is eight twenty-three post sol-meridiem. Sunset was thirty-two minutes ago.”

Dorothy sighed. “We should go home.”

“Okay,” said Nemo.

It stood up with one mechanical jerk, and then bent back down to offer a hand. Dorothy looked at it for a moment, but she decided to get back up on her own. Nemo straightened when it saw that she no longer needed help.

“I have a question about something you said earlier,” said Nemo as they walked through the dimly-lit field. “Would you mind if I asked it?”

There was a pause while Dorothy thought.

“No, I don’t mind.”

Nemo nodded mechanically.

“You said that your parents wanted me to fix things. What did you mean by this?”

Frowning, Dorothy said, “It’s dumb. My parents think something’s wrong with me since we moved here because I got into some fights in school. And they made me start talking to the guidance counselor about it.”

“What did he say?” the ‘bot politely asked.

“Dr. Lawrence says that I’m ‘not well-adjusted,’” she said, mimicking her counselor’s crisp and dry way of speaking. “He thinks I need more time to acclimate. He’s a quack.”

Nemo whhhrl’d and clicked.

“How would I help with this?” he asked.

“People think talking to bots helps kids like me,” said Dorothy as they approached the arboretum’s exit. “I don’t think I believe that.”

Her jacket was where she had left it on the ground. Picking it up, she opened the first airlock door and stepped out into the metal entrance hallway lined with red sand. Nemo followed, and when they were both inside she put on her mask and goggles. When she was ready, she opened the second door.

The familiar rush of escaping air was followed by an equally familiar chill. Dorothy blinked at the daunting darkness outside. It was worsened by her goggles.

“Here,” said Nemo. It held out its hand, and a blue-white light shone from its palm, illuminating the path in front of them.

Dorothy looked at the little circle of light that was painted on the ground, and she nodded.

“Let’s go.”

Side by side the two of them crossed the hill back to Dorothy’s street. As they walked, Dorothy stumbled once or twice on some rock that Nemo’s light couldn’t quite reach. It was a pain, and she had to catch her breath after each trip. Her mask was now rust-colored from all the clay-red dust that hung in the air.

“Please, allow me,” said Nemo after a particularly bad slip. It held out its other hand towards Dorothy.

At that point, Dorothy was too tired to be proud. Panting, she gratefully took Nemo’s hand, and the ‘bot held her firmly but gently. Carefully, the two of them made their way down the hill and towards the lights of the houses ahead of them.

The next morning, Dorothy woke up just a moment before her alarm went off. She opened her eyes and saw that Nemo was sitting in his corner, same as the day before. It gave her a quick wave as Dorothy got up from bed.

After washing up and getting dressed, she went downstairs and found her mother in the dining room. Mother had her hair up in a bun, and she was wearing her pearls and makeup too.

“Hey, Dorothy,” she said, while putting on a mask. “I’m sorry, but I have to leave for a meeting. There’s milk for cereal in the fridge. Will you have your ‘bot walk you to school today, please?”

“Okay,” said Dorothy, even though this was the third time this week that she had to eat cereal for breakfast.

“Thank you. I love you, sweetie.”

Blowing a kiss goodbye, Dorothy’s mother slipped out the door.

With a sigh, Dorothy prepared herself a quick and tasteless breakfast. The cereal was bland and the milk was almost like water—father said that it was because it needed to be heat-treated. Even the orange juice had a grainy sort of taste just underneath its token sugariness.

When she was done, the dirty dishes went into the washer, and she went back upstairs.

“Nemo?” she called. “Will you walk to me school, today?”

“Of course,” came its reply.

After taking a moment to prepare, the two of them stepped out of the house and into the sandy winds outside. Dorothy took the lead, and Nemo plodded faithfully along behind her.

“Hey!” someone called out.

Dorothy almost jumped in surprise. Nobody talked outside if they could help it; it was hard enough just trying to breathe in the thin, dusty air.

Turning, she saw a boy behind her about her age. It was hard to see his face underneath the goggles and mask, but she thought she recognized him from a grade below hers. Tommy, or Timmy, or something.

“Hey!” repeated Timmy or Tommy. “Is that your ‘bot?”

“Yes,” Dorothy replied. “His name is Nemo.”

“Wow, he looks pretty new. A lot newer than any ‘bot I’ve seen.” The boy circled Nemo, studying it from every angle.

“My parents ordered him from off-world.” A little bit of sand got in Dorothy’s mouth. She swallowed. “He arrived yesterday.”

“Oh, jeez, he is real new, then!” said the boy. “My parents only have this old ‘bot they call Leonard. He’s nice, but he can’t really learn anything new anymore. I bet your ‘bot could do anything, though!”

“You can teach them to do things?” Dorothy was beginning to feel a light-headed from having to talk so much, and it made the conversation a little difficult to follow.

“Yeah, Roger from my class taught his ‘bot to shoot his BB gun. He said that it took a week to learn, but now it never misses!” Timmy or Tommy hopped around excitedly. “Maybe you could teach your ‘bot to shoot, too! Then we could have a battle with Roger’s ‘bot!”

“Don’t be silly,” Dorothy snorted. “That’d be a waste of Nemo’s time.”

“Aww, okay.” His excitement was dampened, but not extinguished. “Well, you still need to teach him to do something neat, okay? What’s the point of having him if he doesn’t do anything cool?”

“That’s not why I have Nemo,” said Dorothy. “But I’ll think about it.”

“Nice!” The boy looked at Nemo for a moment longer, before turning his gaze back to Dorothy. “So, I’m Theodore. What’s your name?”

“Dorothy,” she replied.

“Okay,” Theodore waved and began to trot away. “I’ll see you around, Dorothy!”

Dorothy watched as he ran on ahead towards the school building. She was a bit annoyed at how little he seemed to be winded from the conversation, even when he did most of the talking. Motioning at Nemo to follow, she began again as soon as she caught her breath.

When they reached the school building, she turned around and addressed her ‘bot.

“Go home now. School ends at three thirty, so you can come pick me up, then.”

“Okay,” said Nemo in its tapping voice. “I will see you this afternoon.”

“Goodbye,” said she as she slipped through the door.

Dorothy’s classes went as they always did, but she found that she couldn’t stop thinking about what Theodore had said. It was odd how much it bugged her, but by the end of her classes, she made up her mind about it.

When the last bell rang, a little crowd of homegoing children built up at the airlock, which was only large enough to let five or six out at a time. Finally, Dorothy’s turn came, and she squeezed into the chamber behind several older kids. When the outer door opened, she saw Nemo patiently waiting on the other side.

“Hello, Nemo,” she said as she began her walk home.

“Hello, Dorothy,” it said as it stepped in behind her.

Dorothy wondered how to ask her question for a moment, then she decided to be blunt about it.

“Nemo,” she said, “would you like to learn to paint?”

Nemo’s brain whrrrl’d as it walked.

“I don’t know.”

“That’s not a good answer.” Dorothy turned her head to address Nemo directly. “You ought to know what you want. You should learn to make your own decisions, you know.”

Nemo tilted his head and furrowed his plastic brows.

“Then, I would like to learn to paint,” it said.

Dorothy smiled under her mask. “Good! I think you’ll like it.”

When the pair arrived at home, Dorothy wasted no time in getting upstairs. The house was empty; mother must have still been busy. At the door of her room, Dorothy stopped.

“Wait,” she said, holding out her hand.

Nemo nodded and stayed in the hallway while Dorothy slipped into her bedroom and locked the door behind her.

Quickly, she reached into the back corner of her closet and retrieved a dusty black trunk. The bronze latches on its lid were carved in the shapes of little doves sitting on branches. When Dorothy was littler, she used to think about those doves a lot and wonder why they weren’t flying. Now, she thinks she was just being silly.

Carefully sliding the lid aside, she brushed through a bunch of her old paintings, lifting them out and putting them to the side. The ones on the top were the newest, from right before they moved. There was one of the brook behind her old house, one of a blue jay she saw last year, and a piece she used to be particularly proud of that she called “Autumn Sunset.” Towards the bottom were the older ones; stuff that she only kept because she wasn’t in the habit of throwing away her paintings. She hadn’t looked at any of these for a while, now.

Finally, she reached the bottom. There sat her painting kit, a palette, and a big pad of acrylic paper that her father had bought for her a long time ago. Grabbing it all, she put her old paintings back before closing the lid and locking it shut.

“Nemo, could you fetch a glass of water?” she asked while she stowed the dove-latched chest back into the closet. “And some old newspapers too, please.”

“Of course,” came Nemo’s reply through the door. Its footsteps clunked down the stairs.

As Dorothy waited for it to return, she took her things and began setting them up. From her wooden paintbrush box, she selected several brushes and two sketch pencils. Tubes of paint and several fresh painting sheets joined them on her desk.

“May I come in?” asked Nemo from behind the door.


With a creak, the doorknob turned the door swung open. There was a plastic cup of water balanced on top of a roll of newspapers in one of Nemo’s free hand.

“Great!” said Dorothy. “We’ll need the water later. For now, could you help me lay out the newspaper on my desk, please?”

“Yes,” it said.

When everything was ready, Dorothy took a seat at her desk and motioned Nemo to take the other chair. She passed a pencil and a fresh sheet to the ‘bot.

“When you paint, you start with a sketch.” Dorothy began scratching a quick outline of a house on her own paper. “It’s mostly just so you know how everything’s going to fit on the space that you have.”

It was a while since Dorothy did this, and it showed. Her pencil didn’t feel as comfortable in her grip as it used to, and she had to stop and erase a lopsided shape very once in a while.

A few minutes in, she looked up and realized that Nemo hadn’t moved. It still held its pencil at the ready over its untouched sheet of acrylic paper.

“Why haven’t you started?” she asked.

“I don’t know what to sketch,” it said.

Dorothy blew a raspberry. “You can sketch whatever you want, silly ‘bot. Just pick something and start drawing.”

Nemo ticked and buzzed, and then it moved. Its arm-joints hummed as it started making several perfectly straight lines across his sheet.

Deciding to let him work undisturbed, Dorothy turned back to her own sketch. Several minutes later, it was a recognizable house on a hilly street. She was a little disappointed at how long it took her, but the sketch itself wasn’t too bad. Glancing to the side, she realized that Nemo was done as well.

The ‘bot’s sketch was more of a blueprint. It was all hard, straight lines meeting together at different angles, with what looked like bolts or screws at the edges.

“What’s that?”

In response, the bot simply pointed towards the bedroom window.

There was nothing outside but rust-colored rocks and dirt. Dorothy squinted, trying to make out whatever it was that Nemo was pointing to. Then, she realized that the ‘bot was pointing at the window and not through it.

At the edges of the window, the double-paned glass met the house’s steel-colored walls in an airtight seal. In each corner, there were tiny little screws in the exact same arrangement that Nemo had drawn.

“Is it good?” asked the ‘bot.

Dorothy squinted.

“Well, you don’t need to make it so perfect next time,” she said. “A sketch is just so you can figure out where you want to put things.”

“What if I already know where I want to put things?”

“I don’t know. I guess you wouldn’t need a sketch.” Dorothy shrugged. “Let’s get started with painting, anyway.”

With a tube of paint in hand, Dorothy squeezed a dollop on the top of the palette. Taking a new color, she put another smidge of paint just below the last. The process repeated until she neat little line of different colored paints dividing the palette straight down the middle.

“You can use that side, and I’ll use this side,” she said. She poured a little water onto the wax paper-like surface of the palette to keep the paints fresh. “Just mix up the paint until you have a color you want. Wash your brush between colors, though.”

Taking a broad flat-tipped brush, Dorothy mixed some cyan with a bit of white. She always did the sky first in all of her paintings. She also put a hint of happy yellow into her clouds, which made their wispy shapes really pop out. When she was mixing green for her grass, she checked on Nemo’s progress out of the corner of her eye.

Nemo had the finest brush in the set, dabbing a gunmetal shade in precise little strokes at specific parts of the window sketch. When it was done with one color, it washed off its side of the palette and moved on to a new one. Each time, it painted all the places that needed a particular color in one go. Steel blue for the frames, then black for the screws, then white for the light reflected off the glass. It was odd, watching a painting being done one shade at a time.

Turning her attention back to her own work, Dorothy mixed a light beige for the walls of the house in her painting. A few curving strokes of a round-tip brush described the way the house caught the afternoon light. With black for an asphalt driveway and a bright pink for bitterroot flowers, the painting was satisfactorily completed.

Nemo, having finished its own piece a while ago, watched Dorothy put the finishing touches on hers. Its eyes clicked, a sound that Dorothy supposed was akin to a blink.

“Yours is different from mine,” it said.

Dorothy studied the ‘bot’s debut piece. The detail was intricate; Nemo had captured every dent and smear with a perfect precision. There were mechanically clear boundaries where each color ended and the next one began. It was almost like a photograph, but with fewer, simpler colors.

“Well,” said Dorothy, “you shouldn’t be afraid to let your colors mix a little. Painting is more about how you feel. It doesn’t really need to be exact.”

Nemo’s brain made that spinning noise again.

“What about yours?” it asked. “What is yours of?”

“My old house in Montana,” she said. “I don’t know why, but I’ve never painted it before.”

“I am confused,” said Nemo. “What reference did you use for it?”

“Um, I didn’t really use one.”

“Then how can you be sure that this depiction is accurate?”

“That’s what I was saying, Nemo.” Dorothy motioned to her painting. “It’s not really about being accurate. You can take a photo if you want to be accurate. Painting’s different. Painting’s messy and… and not accurate. It’s about how something makes you feel, and not always how it actually is.”

“I think I understand,” Nemo replied after a pause. “But this is a difficult concept.”

“It’s okay, you’ll get the hang of it.” Dorothy smiled. She placed their two pictures aside to let them dry. “It’s all about visualizing things.”

“Visualizing?” it asked,

“It means to be able to imagine something without seeing it,” said Dorothy. “So you can paint something you’ve never seen.”

“I understand,” it said. “I will think about this.”

“Good.” Dorothy stretched. “Do you want to do another one?”

Nemo picked up a brush and studied it for a while. Dorothy didn’t think it was a very interesting brush, but there was clearly something about it that intrigued the ‘bot.

“Yes,” Nemo finally said. “I would like to paint another picture.”

“Mother?” Dorothy called as she came home from school. “Can Nemo and I go to the park again?”

“Sure, but come to the screen first,” her mother called out from the living room. “Your father’s on, and he wants to talk to you.”

Peeking at the screen from around the corner, Dorothy saw her father on the screen. It had been several weeks since his last call.

“Hey, ‘Thee.”

“Father, you have a mustache, now.”

He laughed, and it made the tips of his whiskers shake as they floated in the air.

“Yes, I do. Do you think it’s handsome?”

“I don’t know. It’s… strange.”

“That’s what your mother told me.”

Dorothy could tell that he was smiling, even if it was harder to see his lips now.

“She’s also told me that you’ve started painting again,” he said.

“Yeah.” Dorothy looked at her shoes, suddenly very shy.

“That makes me real happy to hear, ‘Thee. Do you want to show me?”

Dorothy shook her head.

“That’s okay, baby girl. You let me see them when you’re ready, okay?” he chuckled.

“I will.”

“That’s my girl.” Then father’s voice dropped a pitch. “Hey, listen ‘Thee. One of the men here got hurt the other day, and we had to take him back to the station. He’s okay now, but we had to spend a good amount of fuel to get him there. It’s going to be a bit of a while longer until I can get back. Maybe a few more weeks.”

“Okay,” Dorothy said. She knew her father already felt bad, so she tried to hide her disappointment.

“Stay safe until I get there. I love you.”

“Me too.”

With a wave, she headed upstairs to her room.

“Nemo,” she said as she walked through the door, “do you want to go paint the trees again?”

“I would like that,” it replied.

“Okay,” said Dorothy as she grabbed her painting kit. “Let’s go, then.”

The two of them descended the stairs and slipped by the living room while Dorothy’s parents were still talking. When they got outside, a harsh blast of wind made Dorothy shiver.

As the two of them made the familiar trip to the arboretum, Dorothy started thinking about the man on her father’s ship that got hurt. She kept wondering how it must have felt, to be so far away from home or from anywhere at all when something like that happened to him. It made her feel small.

Another particularly bad gust made Dorothy happy that they were almost there. Moving inside, the sudden contrast of the warm, still air almost surprised Dorothy, even after all this time. She peeled off her mask with a sigh of relief.

“Nemo,” said Dorothy as they made their way to their spot. “Do you ever think about leaving?”

“Leaving?” it asked.

“Yeah,” said Dorothy. “Sometimes I think about going home. I think about a warm sun, and leaves, and flowers.”

“Perhaps we can go there one day.”

“I don’t know. Rides are really expensive. There’s no way we could afford it. We’d have to steal a ship if we wanted to go,” Dorothy concluded.

Nemo thought and clicked.

“I would help you steal a ship, if you like.”

Dorothy laughed.

“Silly ‘bot, I wasn’t being serious. Besides, we don’t know how to fly a ship. Father does, but he wouldn’t let us.”

“I see.” Nemo lowered its head. “That is unfortunate.”

“It’s okay.” Dorothy took its hand. “Thank you for offering, though.”

When they reached their little pine tree, Dorothy sat on the side where she could feel the sprinklers, and Nemo took his spot next to her. Like many times before, the two of them sat with their backs against the bark of the tree and with brushes in hand.

But today, Dorothy surprised herself when she realized that she didn’t actually feel like painting. She sat there, with her hands in her lap, thinking about nothing in particular. For a while, she lost track of time.

Beside her, she could hear the click-click-clicking of Nemo’s eyes. When she looked, Nemo was copying the shape of a leaf that was sitting in the grass to the left. With a few swift strokes, the ‘bot added veins to its painting.

“You know, Nemo, one of these days we’re going to have to work on your visualizing skills.”

“I have been making progress on it,” it said, still hard at work. “I am nearly ready to show you what I’ve learned.”

“Good.” Dorothy got up. Nemo’s eyes followed her, but she motioned him to stay. “I’m actually a little tired, today, and I’m going to go home. You can finish your painting, if you want.”

“Yes, I would like that.”

“Okay. Goodbye, Nemo.”

Putting on her mask and goggles, Dorothy began to make her way back to the exit. From a little distance away, she turned and waved. The ‘bot returned the wave, with a stuttering motion that seemed almost childish.

When Dorothy arrived at the airlock, the outer door was stiffer than usual. It took all her strength to push it and hold it open against the wind. Slipping out, she walked into a constant barrage of wind.

The gale’s roar blasted at her ears, and the dust it flung very nearly made her blind as well. Dorothy had to take short steps to keep her footing; her progress was painfully slow.

Step by step, she made her way down the hill. Every once in a while, a lull in the sandy wind let her make out the houses in front of her for just a moment.

When she was just a few yards away from her front door, the wind threw a rock at her. It struck her hand at an angle yanked her entire arm sideways. Dorothy cried out, but the wind stole her own voice from her ears.

One hand numb with pain, she tried to pry open the door with just the other. But it was heavy, and there was so much wind blowing across it that she couldn’t get it to budge.

Just before she tried again, the door opened from the inside. A strong set of arms pulled her inside and closed the door behind her.

“Dorothy!” Her mother threw her arms around her. Even her brief exposure to the wind left mother’s face and hair speckled with red. “Dorothy, thank goodness you’re okay.”

Dorothy just tried to catch her breath. She looked at her hand, and it was a wet, matted mess—blood mixed with sand.

When her mother saw, she didn’t say a word. She took her to the sink and washed away the dirt and wound it up really tight with a bandage.

“Why didn’t you stay inside the park, honey?” mother asked, almost sadly. “You know what to do when a storm hits.”

“I didn’t know it was so bad,” said Dorothy. “It just got worse and worse while I was walking.”

“What about your ‘bot? Where is he?”

Dorothy’s eyes widened and her heart flipped as a realization sank through her.

“Nemo!” she said, running up to a window. She couldn’t make out the arboretum through the cloud of dust. “Nemo doesn’t know about storms! He’s going to try to come back!”

Her mother hugged her.

“It’ll be okay, Dorothy.” Her voice was low and soothing. “Nemo a lot stronger than he looks. He’ll probably be okay.”

“But the storm is so big. He might get crushed or lost or something!”

“I know, sweetie.” Her mother began stroking Dorothy’s sandy hair. “But there’s nothing we can do.”

Dorothy chewed her lip and pressed her face against the window’s glass, as if it would help her see clearer.

“I’m going to call the police station,” mother said. “Maybe they can help.”

Dorothy nodded, but she stayed at the window.

For the next several hours, she stayed there, while the storm whistles and rages outside. Every once in a while she heard her mother talking with people on the screen, but she never paid it enough attention to follow the conversations. All her focus is on the patterns of sand brushing up against the window, and what might be just out of her sight.

Finally, her watch ended when sleep unwillingly overtook her.

It was nearly noon when Dorothy woke up in bed, with sand from her hair in the sheets. Her alarm hadn’t gone off, which meant school was closed from last night’s dust storm.

In a flash she remembered what had happened the day before. Without bothering to wash up, she hurried down the stairs.

“Nemo?” she called out.

But there was nobody downstairs. Her mother was already gone for work, and there was a note from her on the dining table.

Dmitri and his boys found Nemo late last night. He isn’t broken, but his batteries were drained. I left him charging in the garage; he should be ready when you wake up.


Dorothy bounded down the hallway to the garage. She opened the door, and true to the letter, Nemo was sitting there next to his charging port. Beside him sat a battered wooden box—Dorothy’s painting kit.

The ‘bot glanced up towards the sound of her entrance.

Brrr, K-chunk! Click!

“Hello?” it said.

“Nemo!” The girl ran up and hugged the ‘bot’s cold metal chest. “Nemo! You’re okay!”

“I’m sorry; I don’t understand.” It tilted its head. “Have we met before?”

Confusion broke out across Dorothy’s face.

“What do you mean, you silly ‘bot? It’s Dorothy. I’m Dorothy!”

“Dorothy,” it repeated. Whrrrrrrrrrrrl! K-chunk! “And you called me ‘Nemo?’”

“Yes! Of course!” Dorothy’s voice gained a desperate edge. “It’s your name. You picked it yourself!”

“I’m sorry,” said the ‘bot with Nemo’s face. “I’ve recently experienced a loss of power. Function was restored three hours ago, but primary drive data was lost.”

“No, no, no!” Dorothy grabbed Nemo’s arm and shook it with all her strength. “You have to remember! You said you’d remember a little!”

“I am trying, Dorothy. It is very difficult.”

“Please try harder! Please try harder, Nemo. I need you to remember!” Dorothy begged and hugged Nemo again.

Nemo clicked and whrrrl’d and tip-tapped. Its head made quick little movements, as if it couldn’t keep itself still.

“I’ve checked my physical storage,” it said. “There isn’t very much, but there is something.”

Nemo gently lifted Dorothy and placed her on the floor beside it. Carefully, it reached for the dirty painting kit and opened it. Inside, there were several paintings of oak leaves that could have passed for photographs. Nemo swept these aside and retrieved a single tube of black paint.

It squeezed some of the paint out onto the metal floor of the garage, and then it took one of the leaf paintings and flipped it over to the blank side. Picking up a round tip brush, Nemo dipped it in the paint and began applying it in short, stabbing motions.

“Nemo!” Dorothy’s eyes widened. “You remember how to paint?”

“No,” Nemo said as it worked. “I am following a precise set of instructions from my hard-coded storage. I would not be able to reproduce this, again.”

“Oh,” said Dorothy, disappointment weighing her voice. She bit her lip. “But this is still something from before, right?”

“Yes,” it said as it continued to paint.

It worked like a printer, beginning at the upper left corner and it continuing straight along until it reached the end of the paper, before starting again slightly below the previous row. In each row, the paint was dabbed on seemingly randomly. Nemo’s motions looked erratic and unpracticed, not at all like he had been when painting the day before.

When the painted portion had reached about a quarter of the way down the sheet, Dorothy finally realized what she was looking at: wispy clouds, birds, a bright sun, and the tops of trees—all distorted, but recognizable. She blinked. Nemo had never seen a bird before.

As the ‘bot finished more rows, the blurred shapes of two figures began to form. One larger, one smaller. Both sitting with their backs against a pine tree on a hill. The big one was holding a brush or a pencil with a long, spindly arm. The little one was pointing upwards and away—into the sky.

In the background, there was a house that Dorothy recognized. It was a simple, blocky copy of the house from the first painting she did with Nemo. It sat in a field and had flowers lining next to the darkly shaded driveway.

When Nemo reached the bottom of the sheet, it put its brush down.

“This set of instructions came with one associated word.” Nemo paused. “I do not understand its meaning in this context.”

“Maybe I can help,” Dorothy suggested.

Nemo nodded. “The word is: Visualize.” It turned to Dorothy, expectantly.

The girl smiled.

“I know what it means. And I can teach you, again, if you want.”

The bot made its thinking sound and tilted its head.

“I would like that.”

« Prev   3   Next »