INTERROGATION CUPCAKES • by Alexander Burns

AR-D6 was first on the scene, bursting through the door to find a little girl and a corpse smeared with blood. The girl looked up with a tear-streaked face and asked if mommy was okay.

Her name was Tallulah, age six, and she had not spoken or left AR-D6’s presence since she’d been gently pried from her mother’s side. Her pink and bright-pink sweater made AR-D6’s drab, battered old coat look even shabbier than usual. As AR-D6’s synaptic processor generated a report and uploaded it to the station servers, she clung to the detective’s arm. Small brown fingers worried at the dents and scratches in gunmetal grey skin.

“It’s Christmas Day, Artie.” Detective Park shrugged. “Social Services will pick her up in a few hours. Until then, you’re on your own.”

“Just use those new speech apps we installed,” Sergeant Wicks suggested. “You’ll have a confession in no time!” The humans laughed.

Artie turned optic sensors on the girl, and she peered back with big brown eyes.

“Do you require nourishment?” Artie asked.

“Hungry,” Tallulah said.

“I appreciate your efficient use of language.”

The girl clung to Artie’s coat as they walked from the police station to an automat frequented by the detectives in the homicide department. The robot chef didn’t mind working on Christmas.

“Research recommends that children be given a wide variety of foods to acclimate to a healthy diet,” Artie said, offering her a plate retrieved from the automat wall. She made a face Artie interpreted as disgust.

“I have been informed the sushi here is excellent,” Artie told her. “Innately bite-sized portions make it ideal for child consumption.”

She shook her head again. Artie accessed the new speech apps suggested by its colleagues.

“Don’t be an asshole, man,” Artie said. The girl crossed her arms and huffed. The next line queued, Look, I’m not the one who killed your mom, kid, by Artie’s estimation would be unwise given the look of anger scrawled on the child’s face. Artie deactivated the apps.

“What would you like?” Artie asked. Tallulah responded with something Artie’s language matrix translated as spaghetti. Artie returned to the wall and found a plate of spaghetti.

Artie watched her dig into the meal, almost as messily as Sergeant Wicks would have. This girl likely knew who had killed her mother. Artie had a lot of red ink on the board — as a robot, it tended to get dumped the difficult cases — and this might be an opportunity to clear a case.

“Tallulah, do you know where your father is?”

The girl shrugged.

“Is there someone whom you are supposed to contact in case of emergencies?”

Tallulah looked up, eyes blank, mouth covered in spaghetti sauce.

“Does anyone else live in your apartment?”

She poked at her spaghetti.

Artie nodded, a mannerism picked up from human co-workers. There had been signs of a male occupant in the apartment — clothes, an extra toothbrush, a pair of shoes — but the victim had not been married and there were no other names on the apartment lease. There had been no sign of forced entry. Artie calculated a 90.7% probability this male occupant was the killer.

“Who else was at your apartment this morning, Tallulah?” Artie asked. The girl didn’t answer. Artie looked at the spaghetti, then back at the girl.

“By my calculations, you have ingested fewer than 200 calories today. I suggest you finish your spaghetti.”

She stirred the spaghetti, listless. Artie scanned the automat wall, seeking a new approach. Moments later, Tallulah was munching on a cookie the size of her head.

“Do you have any questions for me, Tallulah?” Artie asked.

She contemplated her own bite marks in the cookie, then asked, “Where is my mommy?”

“Her body is currently in the coroner’s office, several blocks from here.”

“What’s a coroner?” She struggled with the word.

“A coroner is a medical specialist whose role is to examine the bodies of the deceased to determine a cause of death.”

Chocolate cracked between Tallulah’s teeth. “Did she die?”

“All the biological functions that kept your mother alive were terminated,” Artie said. “Initial inspection of the body indicated she was stabbed by a bladed weapon, probably a knife from the kitchen. She bled to death shortly thereafter, though shock may have also been a factor. These findings are preliminary and could alter upon full examination by coroner staff.” Artie expected the child understood only one word in ten, but she appeared to consider the answer carefully as she licked at the crumbs clinging to her lips.

“Will she get better?” she asked.

“No.” Artie told her. Her eyes fell.

“One time,” she said. “I fell and hurt my knee. Mommy kissed it but it didn’t feel better.”

“An abrasion would require a topical antibacterial ointment,” Artie said, “and a bandage to cover the wound to protect it from further harm or infection.”

“Well, she put a Band-Aid on it,” Tallulah said. “It had a pink robot with a bow.”

Artie said after a moment, “I like pink robots.”

Tallulah put down the last half of her cookie.

“Alan,” she said. “Alan hurt my mommy.”

“Alan lives with you and your mother?” Tallulah nodded. “Do you know Alan’s last name?” She shook her head. It didn’t matter. Artie found an Alan Boyd on the dead mother’s phone contacts, uploaded into the casefile earlier that day, and in seconds had a full profile on her live-in boyfriend. Artie noted the several priors for assault, the mental health evaluations showing a violent temper and frequent misogynistic tirades.

A few seconds later, a judgebot issued the necessary warrant and Artie was tracking Alan’s phone. He was at the train station, purchasing tickets to leave town. Artie alerted the AR-57 on duty. Alan wouldn’t be going anywhere, or hurting any more little girls or their mothers.

Artie scanned the automat wall again. “Tallulah, would you like a cupcake?”

She nodded and shoved the cookie away.


Alexander Burns lives in Denton, Texas. He writes because he doesn’t have a basement in which to build robots or time machines. His work has appeared at Every Day Fiction, The Future Fire, Big Pulp, the StarShipSofa podcast, and other fine online journals.


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Rate this story:
 average 3.6 stars • 41 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Paul A. Freeman

    What an enjoyable story. I particularly liked the way Artie’s character was raised above that of the insensitive human’s.

    • Enjoyed it once I discovered what I did not like about it.
  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    A Runyonesque robot?

    One of my (many) pet peeves is the use of advanced technology without environment/ambiance to match. Columbo as an AI crime-buster is a nice concept but this fell flat for me. Two stars.

  • Carl Steiger

    I find myself annoyed that any police department would let a robot question a traumatized little girl. As for Artie’s inappropriate speech apps, his programmers should be investigated. (“It can only be attributable to human error.” — HAL 9000)

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Using a horrific event to drive this sort of story is the basic problem here. Comedic crime fiction is a durable genre but it certainly diminishes the awfulness of homicide.
      • I was generally going to avoid responding, because clearly the story isn't your cup of tea and you evidently didn't really understand it and as the author that's partially on me, but this one genuinely baffles me. Are you suggesting that human beings always respond appropriately to all situations? Or that some aren't jerks? Cops in particular are faced with horrific circumstances all the time and joke around with each other as a coping mechanism. It's not a comedic piece, the characters are all simply responding earnestly to the situation in which they find themselves.
        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
          As you say, I failed to understand your story. I was baffled by many authorial choices, since, in fiction, the writer has complete control over the actions of characters and what drives the plot. A robot detective in a shabby overcoat, with a tendency to irritate people with inappropriate statements, should not have reminded me of Columbo. And I ought to have picked up on how earnestly the cops were laughing in front of a little girl who'd just seen her mom murdered.
          • Of course the writer has complete control over the actions. I never said otherwise? Why would anyone, anywhere, ever say otherwise? It's a completely meaningless statement. Why shouldn't it remind you of Columbo? They're both drawing on the same genre tropes. I still have no idea what you're talking about, but I would like to live in your world where everyone says exactly the right thing and is exceedingly polite around everyone all the time and never make mistakes.
          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
            "Why shouldn't it remind you of Columbo? They're both drawing on the same genre tropes" ...which is comedic crime. The humorously shambling detective smarter than he appears. But-- "It's not a comedic piece, the characters are all simply responding earnestly to the situation in which they find themselves." OK, Alexander, whatever you say.
          • There are lots of detective tropes that have nothing to do with comedy. I was just honestly curious about your critiques, which I felt were wildly off the mark. The entire story is about how we interact with children (which is almost always wrongly) in the wake of a horrific event, but you didn't seem to pick up on that at all.
          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
            Readers--the bane of writers everywhere...
    • Paul A. Freeman
      Funnily enough, I watched '2001: A Space Odyssey' two days ago. I felt the Artie character was the antithesis of the HAL 9000, learning through experience, benevolent and kind - the type of AI we wanted HAL to be.
      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
        I feel the author has Artie alternating between intuitively appropriate and ham-handedly humorous responses. If Artie is handed the difficult cases, one would think he'd be programmed to make the most effective use of his AI capabilities, rather than as a sort of William Bendix character more likely to rile 'em up than show exquisite analytical skills...
  • Pingback: Interrogation Cupcakes Live | Meanwhile…()

  • JAZZ

    I think we all get it, Sarah, you didn’t like it…….

    • Camille Gooderham Campbell
      Everyone here is welcome to his or her opinion. I expect the author would prefer to hear what you thought of his story rather than having the thread devolve into commenters critiquing each other.
  • Rose Gardener

    I thought the robot achieved a balanced mix of automation and AI programmed humanity. He recognised when the speech apps were inappropriate, but was unable to make his explanation of events totally age-appropriate. I enjoyed it.

  • Jareb M. Collins

    It’s tough to find a good balance when dealing with AI/Robotic speech and human dialogue, especially to avoid a mechanical feel (ok, no pun intended…) I thought the piece did a nice job of this, and held my interest.
    Nice job!

  • There is a pulse here that keeps this story afloat. The human intelligence of the robot and the innate talent to get a little girl to talk. (The apps and that thing about Christmas not withstanding, and the politics between human and machine.) Space Odyssey this isn’t, although the timing of Paul’s coincident is something I would consider … well, a coincident. Two and a half stars. I know I can’t do that. Voted three.

  • I was with joy when I saw EDF pop up in the emails. Best of luck going forth.

    • S Conroy
      Going forth and multiplying. It's great to have EDF back.
  • Dan The Man

    I don’t normally read sci fi, so not being in that frame of mind, I usually struggle with the beginnings in trying to work out what’s going on. But I’m glad I persevered. Well written two ‘characters’, with the robotic programmed empathy giving it an almost human interraction. Pleasant read.

  • I enjoyed this story. Robot cops seem a lot pleasanter than human ones 🙂

  • My electro-mechanical jaw opens and a programmed voice struggles to find the correct evaluation but my CPU yearns for a more human story and not a character that keeps me thinking of R2D2.

  • S Conroy

    “I like pink robots.” I love how such an off-beat comment got the child to confide in the robot and ‘solve’ the crime. Surprisingly touching.

  • Von

    I like how Artie keeps trying to connect with Tallulah. He isn’t successful until he turns off the human-created apps, follows his own thought process and shares the truth with the child. I loved how certain lines helped “humanize” Artie, like the line about liking pink robots and the one about Alan not being able to hurt any more little girls or their mothers. In this world, “humanize” would be better replaced with “robotize” since the robot showed more compassion than the humans.

  • InNoUncertainTerms

    Children and robots — I think you’re always going to get mixed reactions when you throw these together. Wrote a piece about a kid creating a real life version of R2D2 for a writing class a few years back, and I struggled with it.

    I think it was really well written from the bot’s point of view. The only thing it lacked was a character with a personality. The supporting dialogue from the humans could’ve been left out, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. But you could’ve beefed up the interaction between child and bot. Certainly expected the child to bring more of an element of curiosity/compassion, because the bot had such a limited personality. Though I did like its learning & progression throughout.

  • Elegacy Sky

    This story is filled with promise. Its delivery was carrying. It contained aspects of genius. I loved it.

  • Sam Rapine

    Clever look at the qualifiers of humanity! It took a second read for me to get the last few lines (at least I think I got it), and I felt it really capped off the work. Personally the narrative of the crime’s solution fell a little flat, but space is limited and a riveting murder mystery wasn’t the point anyway. Well done!