Story by Robert P. Ottone
If The Boy could feel, he would feel cold.
“It’s booting up,” a voice said in the darkness.
The Boy’s eyes fluttered a moment, a brief halo of soft blue light fading to the oily blackness of his pupils, perpetually dilated.
“Eyes set in Adore Mode, like the previous B-3s,” another voice said softly.
He looked at his hands, pudgy and pink, and at his feet. Tiny toes dotted with artificial nails made of synthetic polymers.
“Motor functions seem fine, no coupling damage,” the first voice said.
“Where am I?” The Boy asked, his voice tinged with an artificial tinniness.
“Vocal modulation is off. Adjusting,” the second voice said.
The Boy rubbed his throat, as one might do at the hint of a sore throat. “What is this place?”
“That’s better,” the second voice said. “Now he sounds alright.”
“I still hate their voices, man,” the first voice whispered. “Creeps me out. No soul behind the words.”
The Boy cocked his head. “No soul?”
He was met with silence. Panic began to overwhelm him as he stared into the darkness, the light above casting a beam down on the operating table, where The Boy lay, wearing a paper gown.
“Where’s my mommy?”
“God damn it, there it is,” the first voice said.
“Are you mad at me? Who are you? Where’s my mommy and daddy?” The Boy asked, panic beginning to rise.
“Reduce emotional response by thirty percent,” the first voice said.
“I’m trying, it’s not working.”
The Boy’s eyes welled up. They flickered light blue, sharp green, bright orange, and he began pulling at the gown, tearing at it in a torrent of shredded, rough paper.
“You must calm down,” the first voice shouted. “Mommy will be very mad at you if you don’t.”
The Boy stopped. He sat on the table and did his best to fix the gown. “Where is my mommy?”
“Do you want to tell him or should I?” the first voice asked.
“Go take a break, I’ll tell him,” the second voice said.
The light above The Boy turned off, and he was bathed in darkness. “Hello?” he said, his little voice tremoring with uncertainty.
When the lights came back on, a man, in his forties, balding, tall, wire-rimmed glasses balanced delicately on the tip of his nose, stood with a glass tablet in his hand, a blur of colors and numbers scattered across it.
“Hello, I’m Reggie,” the man said. “It’s alright, you can calm down, I won’t hurt you.”
“Where am I?”
He helped The Boy off the table and knelt down to look him in the eye. He handed The Boy a tissue. “What do you remember?”
Reggie stared into The Boy’s eyes, then checked his tablet. A minor spike on an orange graph appeared.
“I was eating breakfast with mommy. I love her so much, and she kept looking at me while reading her tablet. Daddy said that he was taking me for a ride in the car, and then I woke up here,” he said.
“Gaps in the memory. Alright.”
Reggie made some adjustments on his tablet, while The Boy reached for a pen sticking out of his white lab coat. “What’s this?”
“Sometimes I use it to write notes, it’s an old-timey thing,” Reggie said.
“What is ‘old-timey’?”
Reggie smiled. “It means from olden times. Before we became so modern.”
The Boy nodded. He still didn’t totally understand, but he liked listening to Reggie. “What are you looking at?”
Reggie’s eyes were glued to a video playing on his tablet. The Boy’s point of view from the back seat of his father’s car. He kicked his little feet, his red and blue sneakers popping into view from time to time.
In his hands was a stuffed white sheep.
“Just a video,” Reggie said, with a sigh. “You don’t remember getting into the car with your daddy?”
The Boy shook his head. His eyes seemed to glow in the light of the room. He looked around, his gaze drifting from Reggie’s eyes to the tablet, to the table, to his gown. As The Boy’s eyes refocused on each thing, there was a slight shift in his head position, allowing his optics a pristine view of whatever he looked at.
“She’s not here, bud.”
“He’s not here either.”
The Boy looked at Reggie. “What’s my name?”
Reggie looked up from his tablet. “I don’t have that information, pal, sorry.”
“What is ‘pal’?”
“It’s a word for ‘friend,’ do you know what that means?”
The Boy nodded and smiled. “Are we friends?”
On “friends,” The Boy’s vocal modulator glitched, and the “R” sound was replaced with a “W.”
Reggie furrowed his brow a moment, then his expression softened. “Yes, we’re friends.”
“How nice,” The Boy said, placing the pen back into Reggie’s pocket.
“AI-scripting is clearly working …” Reggie muttered to himself, jotting down a note.
Reggie continued watching the video. He pulled up various entries related to different days, all in an easy-to-follow digital format, catalogued by date and time. Incidents such as “sleep” or “event” were marked accordingly.
The Boy had an inordinate amount of “event”-related issues scattered through his memory logs.
“Why does he stare at me all the time?” the mom in the video asked, her voice sharp and angry.
The Boy reacted to her, cocking his head to the side, eyes wide, and Reggie slipped a pair of wireless earphones in.
“He’s your son, he loves you,” dad said, approaching the view from The Boy and scooping him up. “He’s only four years old, we only just got him.”
“Well, you better get him checked out,” the mother said, storming down the hall after tapping her cell phone.
Reggie turned the video off as the dad smiled into The Boy’s eyes, hints of sadness in them.
Another “event:” The Boy’s view locked on the mother as she made dinner.
Another of her doing the dishes.
Another of the front door as she entered and jumped, startled to see The Boy waiting for her. “Mommy’s home!” The Boy said, happily.
Each time, when she caught The Boy staring at her, she produced her phone and made an unseen entry.
“Jeez, this is what they’re upset about?” Reggie said to himself.
“Who’s ‘upset,’ friend?”
Reggie took his earphones out and re-attached them to the tablet. “Nobody, pal.”
“Are mommy and daddy coming to pick me up soon?”
Reggie didn’t know what to say. By now, The Boy’s parents were home with their replacement model, newly-printed and upgraded with the latest firmware. The new models were vastly superior to even one barely a year old like The Boy in front of him.
“Yeah, they’ll be back soon, little guy.”
“Little guy,” The Boy said, giggling.
“Is that funny?”
“You’re funny, my friend. I’m a little guy!”
Reggie smiled. He looked down at the tablet and checked the notes from the company that produced The Boy and others like him.
“… Exclusions to the warranty or violation of service include: act of God, unit mishandling or mistreatment, physical or firmware tampering, unauthorized upgrades, units out of production …”
Reggie scanned further down, past more legalese.
“Units determined to malfunction or violate the legal precedence set forth by the Shirley Convention of Twenty-Ninety-Eight are to be removed from circulation and retired from service.” The term formed beads of sweat on Reggie’s brow and resulted in a vice-like grip on his heart.
“Okay, little guy,” Reggie said, rising and extending his hand to The Boy. “Come with me.”
“Where are we going, friend?”
Reggie stared at The Boy. “What’s your favorite place in the whole world?”
“Home with mommy, of course.”
“Then that’s where we’re going.”
They walked across the tile, toward a square-shaped outline on the wall, four feet by four feet.
Reggie didn’t know what was inside the wall. He only knew that there was a conveyor belt-like device that the units were placed upon, their feet facing a darkness Reggie was blissfully unaware of.
He pressed his hand to the wall, and the space opened. Impenetrable blackness yawned at him and The Boy.
“Here we are, now, pal,” Reggie said, lifting the boy from under his arms and placing him onto the conveyor belt.
The Boy giggled.
“What’s so funny?”
“It’s cold on my feet,” The Boy said, smiling.
Reggie investigated the space. The conveyor belt stretched on for what could’ve been forever behind the wall.
“You can feel that?”
The Boy nodded. “Will you come and visit me when I’m home with mommy and daddy?”
Reggie sighed. “Sure.”
“Bye-bye,” The Boy said, as the conveyor belt whirred to life, slowly pulling him into the darkness.
Once The Boy was deeper inside, the wall sealed shut.
There was a soft hum, and the wall vibrated a moment, before Reggie turned his tablet off and took a seat next to the table. He gathered the shredded pieces of the paper gown, rose, and left the room.
This story by Robert P. Ottone was the first runner-up in our recent writing competition with the theme "When the Machine Arrived." Follow us on Facebook and join our newsletter to receive invitations to future competitions.