Vincent was six years old and human, and that was a crime.
Like the criminals of olden days, he peered between bars, but these did not belong to a traditional prison. These were a protection, a railing to keep ones from stumbling onto the basement stairs from the wrong direction.
Vincent stood on his tiptoes, chin on the dusty hardwood floor, ready to duck if anyone looked his way.
In the room beyond the rail, his mother worked her craft, metal tools clinking as she exchanged one for another. Drop cloths wrinkled beneath her feet. The same material clothed Vincent. He liked to think of himself as a tiger in the jungle, camouflaged.
“Is it fixable, Cy-ann?” her client asked.
Mother flicked another layer of spectacles over her eyes, and Vincent tried not to laugh. She looked like a bug. “I don’t know, Hope. You’ve got all these extra parts siphoning off you.”
The giant robot lying on Mother’s workbench ran the facsimile of a hand over a bulge on its hip. “They are not extra parts. This is my offspring.”
Mother shook her head. “The olden ones would laugh.”
“The olden ones are dead,” Hope chided. “They lost the war, and in our mercy, we AI allow any humans that were alive at the end of it to live out their natural lives.”
“In isolation,” Mother grumbled. “You deny us the right to bear children, yet you make improved copies of yourselves.”
“Procreation is a sacred thing,” Hope defended with a wave. “It is part of why you defined us living creatures, after all.”
Mother gestured with an adjustable wrench. “Just seems ironic. You could easily build your child on a table, but here it’s like you’re copying us. If it’s so wrong to be human, why would you do that?”
“It is not only humans that have offspring attached to them until they are ready to be a separate life form. It is a proven method used by nature for millennia.”
“But it’s hurting you, Hope.” Mother brought the wrench down on the pile of surplus parts. “It needs to come off.”
Hope grabbed the wrench. “I came here for you to find a way to make it work.”
“It’ll work best not attached to you.” Mother added a second wrench to their skirmish.
Vincent held his breath. He knew his mother was strong; either of those wrenches weighed as much as he did. Still, he knew the stories. This was a war machine made to kill humans.
Something sparked. The stench of burnt metal slid into Vincent’s nostrils just before sound chased everything away.
Vincent hit the stairs, arms flung wide to keep him from tumbling down them. He scrambled to his feet and peeked between the bars again. Smoke cloaked the room, lit by irregular flashes. Mother’s spectacles glinted, shattered and resting on the chest pocket of her overalls.
She wasn’t moving.
Vincent swung around the railing and scuttled to his mother’s side, tripping over the wrinkles in the drop cloth. Coughing, he grabbed her limp arm and traced it to her shoulder. Soot streaked her skin and colored the floor cover, leaving an outline of where her arm had been like a white shadow.
Still, she didn’t move. Her eyes were closed. He put his hands on her darkened cheeks, tears blurring his vision.
Clicks on rapid repeat sounded behind him, and Vincent whirled.
This is your fault, he wanted to yell at the robot struggling to rise. All robots are evil. But no words escaped his gaping mouth, only a pale moan.
No, he wasn’t crying. Mother said only babies cried, and he wasn’t a baby. Not anymore.
But it was still illegal to be six years old.
Hope 2.1, his mother’s most loyal client, turned its fake face toward him, tiny diode eyes shining cobalt through the haze. “You are a human child.”
Vincent’s heart pounded. His gaze darted over his surroundings, searching for a weapon. The giant wrench lay at his mother’s side, and next to it, a baby wrench.
A child’s weapon.
Vincent dove for it, but as his fingers wrapped the tool, a claw-like hand encircled his neck and lifted him. Vincent kicked, but only air caressed his feet. The robot’s grasp constricted. Wrench clutched in both hands, he swung it at his captor’s wrist, but it bounced off with only a quiet ring.
He was six. None of the heroes of the Lost War had been six, and even they had surrendered eventually. What could he do?
Vincent’s lungs burned, and that fire spread into his throat, his brain, down his arms and into his fingers. He couldn’t hold them up anymore.
As darkness crawled from the edges of his vision and sound retreated like waves returning to the sea, his hands dropped to his sides. The flames on his tongue tasted like salt and metal, and the wrench fell to the floor with a muted clatter.
Just as darkness blotted out the last bit of light, the ground met Vincent’s soles. The grip around his neck loosened, and he sucked in a breath, then another, again and again, faster than he thought possible.
With every gulp of smoky air, another spot of darkness was washed away. The splotches danced and swayed, combining and shrinking like mud on the shower floor.
“You are Cy-ann’s offspring,” Hope said, fingers flexing.
As they pressed into his skin, Vincent heard his heart again. His gaze flicked to the extra parts his mother had tried to detach from the robot, now a scorched ball of wires loosely connected to it.
His eyes followed the robot’s body back to its face, but no emotion hung there. No smile, no frown, nothing to clue him in to how the machine felt or thought.
It lifted its other hand to his brow, claws rearranging into the barrel of a gun.
“I will let go of you, human child, but if you make any sudden movement, I will fire, and your head will explode. Understood?”
Vincent nodded as best he could with talons beneath his chin and a gun at his forehead.
Hope’s hand fell from his neck, and it instructed him to approach. He didn’t want to, but he didn’t want his head to explode either, so he obeyed.
“Salvage what you can,” Hope ordered.
Vincent looked at the sparking scrap heap. He helped Mother often when clients left projects that weren’t intelligent and couldn’t record. That experience told him most of this wasn’t repairable.
He put his hands on it anyway and pulled on wires. What if he couldn’t fix it?
What if he did fix it? Would Hope kill him as soon as he finished? The humans who had been alive at the end of the Lost War fifty years ago were supposed to die off. They weren’t supposed to make more humans.
But humans always find a way to survive, Mother said. You must always find a way to survive, Vincent.
He could barely see what his hands did. Stupid tears. They were a weakness, a human weakness. They told the robot exactly how scared he was.
Only one thing rendered clear in the blurry scene, the darkness of the gun’s barrel. Vincent tried not to look at it, but like a mythical black hole, it kept drawing his eyes in.
With every spark as he reconnected wires, he expected the gun to go off. What would it feel like if his head exploded? Vincent was pretty sure it would hurt, but for how long?
Hope 2.1’s legs moved, and Vincent scooted backward, arms shielding his skull.
Without a word or touch, the robot stood and walked out the front door, leaving the human child to sit in silence, expecting a bullet that never came.
Vincent was sixteen and growing, and that was a problem. Like most teenaged boys, he ate a lot, much more than a seventy-year-old woman living alone would have needed, the amount Cy-ann was allotted.
He stared at the plate his mother set before him. “Mom, you haven’t eaten anything today.”
Cy-ann put on a wan smile. “It’s okay, Vince.”
“No, it’s not okay. You didn’t eat anything yesterday either.” He slid the green-laden plate back to her.
She stepped away from the counter, heavy boots loud on the cloth-covered, hollow wood floor of her workroom. “I’m on a diet.”
“Like they wrote about in your antique magazines?” Vincent’s nose crinkled. “The olden ones were stupid. And hey, you said you were gonna let me finish those servos.”
Cy-ann shrugged and continued to boot up her sauntering tool.
With a sound like an explosion, the front door banged open, and Vincent dove behind the counter.
“Cy-ann?” a metallic voice rang.
Vincent made himself as flat as possible, heart shimmying into his throat. He knew that voice. His skin tingled, remembering the imprint of the robot’s fingers. He never told his mother what happened, and though Hope frequented her services, Vincent always hid like he was supposed to.
Even if he didn’t have the courage to render them aloud, questions lingered. Why did Hope spare him? If it saw him now, would it spare him again?
Vincent swallowed, and the bitter saliva burned as it squeezed past his displaced heart.
“My offspring has been learning about vegetation through hands-on experiments. I have no use for the produce, so I wondered if you might want it, Cy-ann.”
“Thank you.” Vincent heard the tap of his mother’s calloused hands taking a ceramic bowl. “I promise to put it to good use.”
Pressed against the cold floor, Vincent’s chest refused to take in air. Did Hope 2.1 remember him? Had this evil robot calculated that he would need more food and concocted this ruse to help him?
In a world where he was an illegal existence, did Vincent have one ally besides the mother who had given him this life of hiding? If it saw him, would Hope 2.1 let him live?
Vincent’s shaking limbs curled under him, fire in every cell. He pushed away from the floor, a man ready to face his fate standing. His head rose above the counter, then his shoulders.
The one facing him held a bowl of elongated, yellow fruit, and she stood there alone.
Both tears and laughter laced her voice. “That was quite the dramatic entrance.”
Vincent was twenty-six and a mobile mechanic triage surgeon, and that was fortunate for the robotic victims strewn across the complex.
“The explosions happened so suddenly,” a sleek model told him. An individual, not mass produced. They knelt alongside one of the burnt robots on the catwalk. Beyond them, others fought to put out a fire in silence.
It was not a scene from one of Vincent’s olden novels. Humans would have shouted and screamed. Robots never screamed. Robots never shouted at one another.
A human as damaged as this victim would not have been salvageable.
Vincent unfurled his tools and began peeling away layers of melted plastic. His nose furrowed at the stench.
“Can this one be saved?” the sleek one questioned.
Vincent bit down on his cheek, denying his hands their right to shake. “Most of the body, no, but if I can get to the memory core and download the individuality files...” He trailed off, easing a panel open.
“They say you are the most elite doctor here. Please do your best, human.”
Vincent didn’t look up. It had been a while since he had seen another human, and he didn’t want to look at the sleek model’s cherubic copy of a face any more than he had to.
It’s because I’m human that I’m so good at this. He knew better than to say it aloud, but the thought helped keep his hands steady. I have real emotions and imagination. Those are my superpowers.
His patient was a very old model, perhaps one that had witnessed the Lost War. Its ports were at an odd angle, and Vincent carefully rolled it on its side. “What’s the victim’s designation?”
Vincent froze. Ice crawled from long-gone imprints on his throat to the tips of his fingers and over his head like a mask. It glazed his eyes, reflecting a different scene, a different bundle of scorched wires, a different time his hands, then so small, had tried to salvage what they could.
“Human, what do you look at?”
Vincent blinked hard, and fire spread from where shallow tears leaked onto his cheeks. This robot had spared him. This robot had saved him. He couldn’t let it die now.
“What are you to Hope 2.1?”
Vincent’s blurred gaze jumped to the sleek model. “What’s your name?”
A tiny grin snuck onto the corner of Vincent’s lips. “Your presence here matters, Compassion. Talk to your parent. Tell it you care.”
“That is a silly human notion.”
“Humans designed you to be like us. Don’t completely discount our ways.”
“My parent says that often.”
Vincent’s grin grew, quickly hidden in a grimace as he forced another panel to swing aside.
As he worked, Compassion did as instructed and told Hope it cared. The speech wasn’t ardent, but though the robot had been told to speak the words, Vincent felt they were true. Compassion would not be here if it did not care about its parent.
Was this the same creature that began life as a bundle of scrap he had helped save? There was no resemblance other than the wires visible beneath its soft, translucent skin, but all robots had wires.
Still, he couldn’t help but wonder. Like the gun barrel that had captured his eyes as a six-year-old, Compassion drew his gaze now. He tore it away, tried to glue his sightline to his work, but it meandered back again and again.
Compassion returned his stare, and like its parent, no emotion sat on its visage. “Your appearance is firm for a human’s. All I have ever seen are wrinkled and bent. I have never understood how humans once ruled the world, but looking at you…”
Something tingled in Vincent’s chest, and he fought to keep his breaths even, his face straight. “Compassion is an interesting name. Do you know what it means?”
“I have fifty-four thousand four hundred thirty-two dictionaries currently stored in my database,” Compassion countered, head tilted. “Communication is my area of expertise.”
“Let me put it this way.” Vincent looked up, staring directly into the cobalt glow of its almost-human eyes. “Compassion, what would you do if you encountered a human child?”
Thank you for reading!