First published in 2018, ‘Magic at Midnight‘ anthology
Pin refused to look back at the city. Her knees buckled and she fell on the dry, yellow grass beneath a large oak tree. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she panted and coughed, resting against the gnarled roots of the tree. The plain in front of her was scattered with a forest of tree stumps and not a single creature scurried about. The oak tree was a skeleton of its previous life, a hollow trunk with empty branches. Pin nestled herself in the dirt with aching muscles. Gen would find her here easily, but she couldn’t push herself to run any farther.
Nothing broke the silence. For once, Pin missed Lisa’s calm voice and the quiet, gentle hum of her wheels. Lisa had always made sure that Pin was occupied with books because ‘knowledge was the way forward for humanity,’ and she thought Pin should be a pioneer in that. And so Pin had read during every waking moment. She almost yearned for a book to read now beneath the oak tree, to flip through its pages and to feel the paper graze her fingers. To forget everything that had happened. To lose herself, away from the outside world.
Although there wasn’t much of a world to be lost from.
The sun hung low in the rusty sky and the tree stumps stood like an army, lifeless yet foreboding. They promised her a hopeless fate. She turned away but only saw the city left behind, where the sounds of life had been quelled to silence.
Pain echoed through her body, pulsating around the knife pressed into her side. She stifled a groan, knowing that Gen might be nearby. She didn’t want him to find her just yet. The solitude that had once bored her became precious, essential to calm a chaotic mind.
Maybe it’s supposed to be like this, thought Pin. It seemed easier, somehow, to let the agony overtake her. Her fingers closed around the knife and she started to edge it out, but that only made it worse. Warm blood oozed from the wound, but Pin couldn’t look at it. With a deep breath she let the knife remain and lay down, her head resting against the bumpy roots of the tree.
Pin snapped off the golden locket that hung around her neck. She clicked it open and saw her mother’s face smiling at her. She had the same caramel skin, brown eyes, and crop of dark hair as Pin. A throb of energy pulsed through her arm and she threw the locket away into the brush.
It was humid and Pin always felt sleepy at this time of day. She closed her eyes and thought about Lisa, untangling her thoughts to free her memories.
“You haven’t finished these ones, Pinterry,” Lisa had said the previous morning.
Pin had looked up from her new book and noticed the unfinished stack piled high next to her. She pulled a face from behind the pages while Lisa sorted through the stack alphabetically. Her joints moved slowly and carefully, each motion punctuated by the squeaking of metal.
“Look here,” Pin had said. She pored over a large physiology textbook. The cover was torn off, but the pages remained pristine. They sat inside the Atrium, the largest room in the library with the tallest windows. Light poured into the room from the morning sun, small specks of dust dancing in its rays. Lisa put down the pile of books in her hands and wheeled around to see Pin’s new interest.
“It says: ‘A deficiency of vitamin D can lead to bone def… def-orm…’”
“Deformities,” said Lisa. “Plural of deformity. A state of being misshapen, distorted, disproportionate, or crooked.”
Pin nodded absently and traced her finger beneath the sentence.
“‘A deficiency of vitamin D can lead to bone… deformities, such as os… os-tee-oh…’” Her eyes flicked up at Lisa, whose green light began to flash on her silver forehead. It signaled the gathering of information. To avoid another dictionary session, Pin continued reading. “‘Sunlight is required for vitamin D to form in your body.’ See, Lisa, I need the sun. So you need to let me go outside!”
Lisa wheeled herself away and picked up the books that she had set aside.
“Pinterry, it’s too dangerous to leave the library. You know that. You have no bone irregularities, so you do not need the sunlight.”
Lisa’s mouth, a circular hole covered with wire mesh, lit up orange whenever she spoke. Sometimes, when she was really adamant about something, the orange would turn to red. This time it was somewhere in between. Pin shrank into her chair and hunched her shoulders into a sulk.
“You never let me go out,” she said, just loud enough for Lisa to hear. The robot faced her and spoke with orange softness.
“Pinterry. It is too dangerous to leave the library,” she repeated. “The monster—”
“I know, I know. The monster will find us and hurt us and kill us,” said Pin, but she couldn’t help frowning after the word ‘kill.’ It had such a finality to it, something that she didn’t want to understand.
To her, life felt infinite. Slow, but endless.
Lisa wheeled herself out of the Atrium with a dozen books in hand. She was good at organizing, sorting, and remembering things. Lisa was actually LI-SA: Library Intelligence—Support Assistant. The library was an ancient jewel in the city, though no one had visited it for many years. Numerous LI-SAs had been installed to take care of the library as the public interest declined. But Pin’s Lisa seemed to be the only one who still remained, maintaining the vast collections of books, articles, and journals scattered all over the broken building. The fate of the other LI-SAs was a mystery.
Pin listened to the echo of Lisa’s wheels squeaking in the hall. After she knew the robot was elsewhere in the depths of the building, Pin ran toward the large spiral staircase just outside the Atrium. The good thing about living in such a big building was the unexplored space that it offered. Pin dashed across the lobby, sprinted up the winding staircase, and weaved her way through halls of bookcases. But she wished more than anything to crack open the windows and race outside, just to keep going and never stop.
The second floor was full of fiction. Pin had never liked novels. Their fictional worlds made no sense to her. They seemed out of touch with reality. She preferred books filled with facts and interesting realities, things that were logical and tangible. But Lisa had truly irritated her that morning, and so Pin found herself traversing the corridors of bookcases in the fantasy section. A faded blue hardback sat wedged tightly between several smaller novels, beckoning to be plucked out of the crowded shelf. Pin drew it out and sat on a window seat, glancing at the overgrown garden. Tall fir trees blocked her vision. She always wondered what lay beyond.
Fables and Fairy Tales, read the title in embossed gold print. She flicked through the glossy pages, glancing at the colorful illustrations and skimming through the large print. There were many drawings: malicious queens, a wicked stepmother, witches, dragons, and hunters. All bad and evil. And the heroes, the princesses, the good folk who received their happily-ever-afters. But every time Pin had read these stories, the heroes fell as flat as the pages.
A princess cursed into a deep slumber waited helplessly for her champion. Across the page, an evil queen with pointy fingers cackled over a glass orb. She had the same green eyes as the princess.
What if the queen wasn’t evil, Pin wondered, but simply misunderstood? Maybe no one listened to her, but she was really the one in need of help. Perhaps she wasn’t evil at all—just a confused soul. A little deformed, crying out for help. Pin looked through the dirty window at the trees outside and tried to peer through their branches.
“Maybe there’s no monster out there,” she said. “Maybe whatever it is just needs to be understood.”
Tree branches wavered gently in the wind, enclosing the library in its own cocoon. Pin’s fingers traveled to the golden locket around her neck. She clicked the button on the side and the locket opened, revealing two pictures: one torn beyond recognition, and the other of her mother. The same warm brown eyes that Pin herself possessed stared back at her. Pin often opened the locket to gaze upon her mother’s frozen, smiling face. She wished her mother could crawl out of the picture and onto the seat, rocking Pin in her arms. But as the days slipped by, Pin realized her memory of the kind face was fading. She would open the locket in the mornings and evenings, sometimes sighing, sometimes crying.
Months before, Pin had been left in the library, entrusted to Lisa’s care. Why her mother had left her, Pin never really knew.
“Pinterry.” Lisa’s voice rang throughout the upper floors. She couldn’t shout; she could merely increase the volume. “Come and help me with these books.”
Pin slid off the bench, leaving the book of fairy tales on the seat, and went to look for the bot.
As she opened her eyes, a full moon greeted her. The darkness around her held no surprises; Gen hadn’t found her yet. For now, she was safe. Pin tried to sit up straight, but a jolt of pain paralyzed her limbs and she cried out.
“I’m okay. I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay.” The words did not soothe her. She closed her eyes and lied to herself again, that everything would be fine. But as she thought the words, her heart pounded against her chest with brutal force. Her skin prickled and burned.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened.
Pin didn’t like to tell lies. Every time she did, her skin would burn with a fire like the sun and her heart would not stop racing. But Lisa had annoyed her so much that day that Pin had to find a way to leave. If she didn’t, she knew she would surely go mad. Staying indoors made time itself become something imaginary. Minutes ticked away, blending into hours, melting into days.
The library had two main entrances, front and side, and then a back access to the garden. The main entrances had been barricaded shut long ago and would have made too much noise to open, but the back access had a jammed broken door.
Pin made sure Lisa was far away from her, filing books under Flora, Nature at the other end of the library, before she crept past and ran down the hall. A nagging feeling told her to stop and turn back, but something else pushed her to break the door down and run away. She fiddled with the handle, desperately willing the door to swing open.
A gentle whirring of wheels echoed in the hall.
“Pinterry, what are you doing?”
Pin scrambled to invent an excuse. “I read a book earlier about fixing things using hammers and nails,” she said quickly, “and I thought, this door has been broken for ages, so why couldn’t I fix it?” She grinned, but it made no difference. The robot’s metal features remained detached, the stark opposite of Pin’s eagerness.
In that moment, Pinterry wished that Lisa was someone who could grin back at her, laugh at her bad jokes, scold her with a real angry voice. But of course she could never be.
“We don’t have books on—” began Lisa, but as she did, Pin began to shake. She clutched the door handle for strength. Her legs filled with air, knees buckling. The effect of the lie. Was her heart pounding far too loudly? Or could Lisa hear it too?
“Pinterry, are you okay?” For just an instant, Pin thought she heard concern hidden in the monotone voice. She gave a small nod before an idea lit up in her head.
“Actually, I’m not feeling good. I’ve read that stagnant air can lead to all sorts of illnesses. I think I need to get some fresh air.” Her heart punched violently and her skin prickled. Pin didn’t know how long she could lie before she would pass out. “Lisa, you wouldn’t really understand. It’s a human thing.”
The words stung, but Lisa didn’t register it. She only shook her metal head and took Pin by the arms, slowly guiding her to the front door. Pin’s beating heart settled and then shuddered, this time from sheer excitement as she realized Lisa was going to let her have her way.
“Only for a few minutes,” Lisa said. “We don’t want—”
“The monster to find us. No, we don’t,” said Pin, grinning from ear to ear.
Dead leaves rustled nearby. Pin jerked her head to the side, thinking the sound was footsteps coming closer, but no one was there. She was alone. Lost and alone. She wrapped her arms around herself, rocking back and forth, cradling her chest as if to soothe what was inside. A cool breeze sent shivers across her skin, wisps of dark hair tickling her cheeks.
Pin remembered how she’d longed to feel the wind, to be blown away by it.
And when she had felt it, it was glorious.
“Pinterry, not too far!” Lisa had called. Pin stood still as the warm breeze hit her outside the library entrance. The sun shone down from a pastel blue sky and dusty green trees swayed gently, lining the road outside the library. Pin closed her eyes and tried to quell her excitement so she could savor the flavor of the wind brushing her skin like a soft embrace.
Her little lie had worked, and now she had her freedom. She glanced at Lisa before sprinting away. And she didn’t look back.
Pin ran and ran and ran, passing tall buildings and roads littered with the remains of the past. Warm air filled her lungs and she shouted, utterly exhilarated. She ran till her legs could carry on no more, then she clambered up a stone wall and stood tall. There was an identical stone wall embedded with black lamp posts in the distance. Still panting, Pin looked over the edge and saw a dry, muddy abyss. The Thames should have been in front of her, but now an empty ditch snaked its way through London. Pin frowned and held on to a lamp post, glancing around. It was very still and quiet, as if no other soul lived in the city.
The gentle humming of wheels caught up to her. Lisa’s mouth glared red, but somehow Pin thought Lisa looked concerned. Maybe she was. Pin sat on the stone wall, dangling her legs.
“Get down from there,” said Lisa. “You could get hurt. Pinterry, were you lying to me before? Are you not ill?”
Reality drowned out Lisa’s words. The mundane routine of her previous existence had vanished. Pin was outside, underneath a perfect blue sky. No book could replace the way the sun scorched her face.
“What happened here? Why is no one else around?” Pin asked finally.
“The city has been like this for a while,” said Lisa, her volume turned to the lowest setting. A large structure stood in the distance across the muddy abyss, tall and pointed at the top, with a massive black hole on each side. Pin recognized it as Big Ben, but there was no clock face, only a gaping aperture at each side.
Without the clocks, time seemed to disappear into a void. There was no forward or backward—only now. Life had already felt endless and slow to Pin, and it felt even more so at that moment.
“The monster,” said Lisa. Pin flicked from Lisa to the building.
Lisa shook her head.
“It always emerges from that side. Always from the north.”
Pin’s curiosity grew and sprouted wings. She sprang from her perch and skipped along the stone wall before the robot could drag her back. Lisa called out to her, and Pin wondered if robots could panic. When she was at a safe distance, Pin slowed to a walk.
London had grown wild. Once a cornerstone of the world, now a city reduced to a jungle with crumbling buildings. Vines like thick green snakes grew out of windows and cars, sprouted from beneath sewers, and formed a carpet of green across streets. Pin trailed alongside the empty Thames, inspecting roads blocked by overgrowth. From the corner of her eye, she was certain she saw the vines crawl.
Then came a rustling. Not from the wind, nor the vines, but something stronger. Pin stopped in her tracks, her eyes darting around. The rustling came from a little way off, in the denser part of the jungle. It grew louder. Pin felt Lisa’s metal hand grip her shoulder, trying to drag her backward, but Pin didn’t hear her plead. Lisa wanted her to come, but Pin stood rooted to the ground.
It wasn’t till the bullet blasted past her head that Pin turned to run. She didn’t need to read any books to know the danger here.
“Come on, Lisa!” Pin screamed. Lisa’s wheels, which had always been old and not built for a chase, struggled to keep up. Pin grabbed Lisa’s mechanical arm and pulled her, metal scraping on the gravel.
“My wheels will break,” said Lisa, but she allowed Pin to drag her.
The safest option was to go back to the library, but Pin’s mind was muddled from the blast. They wound through side roads, racing to find a sanctuary of sorts until they came to a high street. Old shops lined the road, some with shutters drawn, others with broken glass scattered over their steps.
An abandoned bakery stood at the corner, stale bread and fancy pastries displayed behind the intact window. Pin pulled Lisa gently around the corner, hoping to find some way out, when she realized they had reached a dead end. Houses squashed against each other in the narrow cul-de-sac. Creeping vines grew over cars that lay wrecked on the tarmac.
“This isn’t good,” muttered Pin. She turned back to the high street and jerked Lisa’s arm, but the bot could not move. Thick vines were tangled in between the cogs in her wheels.
“I cannot go any farther,” said Lisa, with her unnatural calmness. Pin tried to pull apart the plants, but too many of them had twisted into Lisa’s machinery. She had to do something else. Perhaps if she lured the monster away, it wouldn’t know Lisa was here.
“Stay here and don’t make a sound,” she whispered to Lisa, who nodded and stopped struggling. She looked strangely lifeless.
Red clouds streaked the sky over the high street. Pin observed the debris as she crept across the pavement: broken signs, shattered TV screens, torn books, and more. She crouched down and lifted a lone page, wondering which novel it had been ripped from. An illustration of a monster, with twisted horns and a cruel, ugly face growled at her. She dropped the paper and jogged ahead.
A tall iron gate stood at the edge of a derelict park. Pin dragged the gate open, frowning as it creaked loudly. This place is so beautiful, she thought as she sneaked through, but the grass is yellow and the ponds are all dried up. Leaves crunched underfoot and not a soul breathed in the stillness.
Pin was paralyzed. From the edges of her vision she saw a man aiming a gun at her. He stepped sideways to look at her before his face crumpled from fury into confused relief. Dark circles puffed under his eyes and wrinkled, gray skin hung from high cheekbones. Stubble covered half his face. His bright eyes were the color of a perfect sky.
“What’s your name?” he finally asked.
“Are there any others?
Pin shook her head. Great, I finally find another person and I can’t even speak,she thought in annoyance.
“So you haven’t got a mum or a dad?”
She shook her head. Not anymore.
“Brothers or sisters?”
“Aunts? Uncles? Cousins?”
None, none, none.
She stopped moving her head just in time to hide the lie and he took her silence as a ‘no.’ The man reached for her and Pin took a step back, tripping over a fallen branch. He caught her wrist and hoisted her up, bright eyes piercing through hers.
“Didn’t I see you with a bot before?” Stale breath wafted over her face and Pin winced, very aware of the gun in his other hand. She didn’t dare answer the question.
He saw her pained expression and asked softly, “You’re not scared, are you?”
Pin had no time to consider an answer. She just wanted him to let go.
“No,” she said. Her heart punched, skin flushed and prickled. The man held on a little longer before seeing her sway.
“You’re not well. Come on. Let’s take you home.”
Home did not mean the library. Home was beyond Big Ben, a long walk away. They trekked across Westminster Bridge, but its road had collapsed, leaving only the narrow pavement on one side. Tarmac crumbled and Pin glanced over the edge, seeing only the dark chasm of the ditch below. She shuddered before the man—he’d introduced himself as Gennaro—pulled her away.
Pin felt like she was in a strange sort of trance. She couldn’t believe that Lisa had warned her so desperately about Gennaro, such an ordinary man. He did have a gun, but apart from that, he wasn’t frightening. He simply looked exhausted.
“How have you survived this long?” Gen asked.
“I’ve been at the library. Mum wanted to keep me safe,” said Pin. “But she hasn’t come back yet. Have you seen her? She looks like me, but older.”
Gennaro shook his head. His narrow eyes darted from street to street as they passed by, and Pin struggled to keep up with his quick pace. She thought about Lisa, caught helplessly in the vines, and wondered if she ought to mention her. The gun dangled in Gennaro’s loose grip, but Pin knew at a moment’s notice he would have it ready to fire.
It would be best to keep Lisa a secret, she decided.
Gennaro lived in a small house with one floor. It was the only one on the street that wasn’t completely covered in overgrowth, but the front door was barricaded shut. They walked down several steps to the side of the house to enter, and even then it was a struggle to budge the door open.
“Helps keep intruders out,” said Gennaro. “You have to push it from this side.” He pointed to where the lock was and shoved the door with his shoulder. It gave way after several attempts, and they entered a very messy kitchen.
A scream pierced the air.
Pin covered her ears, looking for the source, and saw a small, old woman perched on a chair underneath a thick blanket.
“It’s her! She’s back!” The old woman pointed at Pin with a shaking, wrinkled hand. “Get her away from us!” Gennaro put his arms around her and tried to calm the woman down.
“It’s okay, Mum. She’s a friend. We’ve found a friend.”
She wasn’t convinced. The screaming continued until Gennaro managed to lift his mother up—against her protestations—and carry her into another room. A few minutes later he emerged and closed the door to the silent room behind him. “She hasn’t been feeling too great for a while.”
The kitchen and living area was one messy, squashed room. A small fire burned in the hearth and Pin hovered over it, entranced by the colors.
“Sit,” said Gen, but it came out more like an order. Pin obeyed and sat on the corner of a chair, barely allowing herself to relax. He sat on the couch and looked at the fire too, but his shoulders remained upright and palms gripped his knees.
“Why were you chasing me?” said Pin. The question had flickered in her mind for the last hour. Gen cleared his throat.
“Oh, I thought you were… I thought you were a robot or something. Silly, isn’t it?” He got up and rummaged in the kitchen before placing two dirty plastic bottles on the coffee table. “They’ve never been opened. Go on—have a drink,” he said. She muttered a thanks but didn’t take the bottle.
A strange thought came to Pin then. Had she ever drunk water before?
She suddenly felt out of place. She wanted to be back in the library, amid the familiar smell of books. Then she thought of Lisa and ached some more.
“If I were a robot, why would you be chasing me?” she asked.
Gennaro glanced at her with a trained eye but then looked back to the fire, opening his own warm bottle of water.
“I guess you’re too young to understand. The robots are the reason why everything’s destroyed now. My father… he designed them, most of them, and now I have to deactivate them all.”
“Deactivate? You mean kill?”
“You can’t kill a robot. They’re not alive to begin with.”
Pin tensed. She turned her face away from Gen. If this man was planning to destroy all robots, then what about Lisa? Was he the reason why there were no more robots in the city?
Pin couldn’t fathom how robots could be destructive. Lisa was helpful—albeit a little annoying—but she always tried to keep Pin safe. She kept the library in good condition, even though no one visited.
But then, Lisa was the only robot she ever knew.
“But if there are fewer robots now, do you really have to deactivate them all?”
Gen slammed his bottle on the table. He growled between his teeth and rose from his chair.
“If I don’t deactivate them, they’ll kill us all!” He stamped his feet as he paced around the cramped room. “It’s a miracle me and Mum have survived this long. And you’re here too, which means there must be other survivors. If we can destroy all the robots, the world can go back to normal.”
He kicked a pile of empty boxes. A water bottle had fallen to the floor. Pin stooped to pick it up, not wanting to meet Gen’s eyes. He took a few deep breaths before combing his hand through his gray hair.
“Sorry,” he muttered, and he returned to the untidy kitchen. The silence filled with a clink of plates and the rustle of packaging.
Pin frowned. What if there were other robots that were evil? It wouldn’t be too hard to believe; after all, throughout history there had been humans who were good and those who were bad. Maybe robots were the same.
Confusion crippled her thoughts. She slumped back into the chair and closed her eyes, picturing the library and Lisa and all her books around her, words streaming from pages. She tried to remember the words of the physiology book she had read that morning, but she only saw blank pages.
A clatter startled her from her reverie. Two plates were set upon the table and both had a strange, gray mush on them. The fire had shrunk in the hearth.
“Sorry, this is all we have. Eat up,” said Gen.
Another strange thought popped into Pin’s mind. Had she ever eaten food in her life, either?
She stared at the plate for some time while Gen ate his mush with little enthusiasm. “Go on,” he said.
Pin took the plate to her lap and held up the gray sludge with a fork. It took a long time for her to place it inside her mouth, and once she did, it felt cold and strange. As if it should not have been there. She tried to chew, realizing she’d never chewed anything before, and she didn’t know what to do from there. So, doing what she thought best, Pin spat it back out onto the plate. Gen raised his eyebrows.
“I guess they have better food where you’re from, then?” He chuckled and took the plate from her. “Well, if you’re not going to eat it, I’d better save it for Mum.”
Pin watched the plate as it was taken away from her. Another question formed in the crevices of her mind, flickering in and out like the flames that were dying in front of her.
Pin awoke beneath a pile of leaves. She was tired of the waiting. Maybe Gen had forgotten about her. Maybe he changed his mind, she thought.
No, that’s stupid. He would find her. She had to be patient. Pin wasn’t sure what was worse: the miserable waiting, or the knife still stuck in her side.
Misty clouds swathed the moon, casting muted light over dead tree stumps. Wind whipped around Pin and a terrible feeling suffocated her. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply, and tried to remember the night before.
She had lain on a comfortable couch with a blanket over her and a cushion to rest her head on. Moonlight spread into the room through a dirty window, scattering dappled silver light across the furniture.
No matter what she did that night, sleep would not take her. Pin fidgeted, turned, and twisted till she fell to the floor in a heap. Gen had gone to his room, and his old mother snored from hers. Pin kept a wary eye on the woman’s door that evening.
A looming sense of confusion settled heavily in her mind. The fire had died and Pin was left to fight with her thoughts. Lisa could have explained everything with clarity, but Lisa was no longer by her side.
Fed up of not being able to sleep, Pin rose from the floor. She paced several times around the kitchen, around the couch, her steps as light as feathers, till she grew weary of her course and changed direction. She crept past both bedroom doors and heard snores from within. A third door, with cracked white paint, had a lock below the metal handle. One tap on the brass, however, and the door creaked open. She stepped through.
Several flashes winked at Pin through the darkness. She flicked the switch on the left and a single bulb flooded the room with sterile, white light. Dozens of knives and guns lined the walls of the small room. Pin surveyed each artifact and wondered what its purpose was. She’d never seen such a vast array of weapons. An uneasy feeling snaked its way through her. Messy piles of papers and newspaper clippings were strewn across two narrow, wooden benches. Pin tried to read over one before the door creaked open once more.
Gennaro’s heavy feet padded into the room. His eyes were bloodshot and wide, the shadow beneath them darker.
“What are you doing here? You’re wasting the light.” His finger hovered over the switch.
“I couldn’t sleep.” Pin turned back to examine the walls. “You have a lot of knives.”
Gen sighed and rubbed his face before settling down on a high stool.
“It’s not always easy to tell what to take when I go hunting. I’d rather dismantle the robots the neat way, you know, through their activation box.” He seemed to be talking more to himself than Pin. It was as if the presence of another person was a key that opened his locked mind. “But it’s not always easy to find. Plus, if they’re fighting back, it’s usually quicker to hack at the main connection.” He pointed to his neck. “Or just go straight to pulling wires out. Depends on how advanced the bots are.”
Pin nodded as the facts came together slowly, forming a messy puzzle.
“Activation box?” she asked.
“It’s not always obvious. Some bots have the box behind their heads—others, over here.” He pointed to his chest. “Although the newer robots didn’t even have a box. Bot Corp used to control their products from some kind of remote machine. Took me months trying to find the company’s mainframe to shut it down. Had to burn all the robots in the end as well, just to make sure.”
Pin imagined the blaze engulfing several hundreds of robots, many probably not knowing what was happening. She thought of Lisa’s silver face melting in the heat. Gen spoke of robots as if they were only made of metal and wires, but they couldn’t be only that. Lisa had kept her company all these months, more than any human had ever done. Lisa was lively and alert, even if her wheels didn’t work as well as they used to.
Pin wondered about her friend trapped in the vines, hoping Lisa had managed to free herself. She clasped her shaking hands together.
“These are my father’s old files.” Gen pointed to boxes of tattered folders beneath the wooden benches. “He was a pioneer in his field, but that didn’t stop him from being a lousy father.”
He pulled out a faded green folder and blew the dust off it before slapping it on the bench. Loose papers spilled out, containing diagrams, equations, and angry red scribbles. “These ones are finished.” He separated the papers and left a pile within the folder. “And I still have to find these bots, but I haven’t had a chance to look through the notes. There were so many to begin with.”
“Did you have to teach yourself this?” asked Pin as she flicked through the pages.
“I never had my father’s flare for inventing,” he said, wrinkles deepening as he frowned.
One page caught Pin’s eyes. In fact, she was sure she had just seen her own brown eyes staring back at her. Snapping the file shut, she smiled at Gen.
“I think,” she said, reminding herself to tell the truth, “I’m going to lie down now.”
Gen nodded, allowing her to exit first. He glanced back at the file before flicking the light off and locking the door behind them.
Back on the couch, Pin lay frozen on her side. She couldn’t sleep. How could she when she was so sure that her own picture was on Gen’s hit list? But that didn’t make any sense—she was a girl.
A human girl.
A real person.
Pin couldn’t hear Gen’s snoring. Taking her chances, she rose once more, wincing as the couch springs groaned. She tiptoed to the third white door, biting her lip. Those eyes could not have been hers; she had to see the drawing once more.
Almost of its own accord, the door drifted open.
The light bulb was on.
There, on the high stool, sat Gen, intently reading the paper Pin had spent all night thinking about.
“So you came back to haunt us.”
“I don’t understand,” said Pin. She was more aware of the knives in the room, shining from their hooks like the eyes of predators waiting for their prey.
“No, I didn’t either. But it looks like you were my father’s pride and joy. His best invention.” He tossed the paper to the floor. It wasn’t just one paper, but a thick bundle of sheets stapled together. Pin picked it up gingerly and scanned through the pages.
Her own face stared straight back at her, but she looked much neater: perfectly drawn short, dark hair; a pointed caramel face with blushing cheeks; and sweet brown eyes. Pin was a drawing with precise measurements, numbers and arrows scribbled all around her.
A red circle was drawn over her chest with a question mark.
“It all makes sense now.” Gen paced around the small room.
He stopped and glared at her.
“My last week in my parents’ house.” Gen motioned around him. “I was leaving for university. We were having dinner and someone knocked on the door. Dad opened it. A woman with a cooler box in her hands stood on our steps. She pleaded with him, begging him to help her. He let her in. His food went cold on his plate because he didn’t eat that evening. He barely ate for the rest of the week.”
Gen sat back down on the stool and crossed his arms. “He didn’t bother seeing me off before I left London. He never visited me when at university, three years of it. He barely said anything to me whenever I came home. He was too busy,” he said, nodding toward the stapled sheets of paper. “Too busy making you.
“That woman had lost her daughter in a car accident and the girl became braindead. But she stole her daughter’s heart from the hospital and came running to my father that same day to build her another little girl.
“I didn’t know what it was at the time. Dad kept the project a complete secret. You can imagine why—think of the court cases,” he said before laughing. There was no smile on his face. “You weren’t just any old android. Dad pushed himself to create a new species of technology. A cyborg.”
Pin wondered what a cyborg was—there weren’t any books on them in the library—but kept listening, completely entranced by her mysterious past.
“A cyborg: the ‘enhanced’ race of human beings. Human-like thoughts and emotions, but with a mechanical body that’s impervious to disease.” Gen stared at her, his eyes boring into her own. His gaze kept her rooted to the spot. “You’ve got a human heart pumping blood around your body. You might be able to feel, as the most advanced type of Artificial Intelligence, but that doesn’t make you human. Clearly, this woman didn’t love you enough like her own daughter to keep you.”
The comment didn’t sting Pin. She didn’t care about this woman any longer, this supposed mother. When she tried to remember her smiling face, she only saw Lisa’s.
“Dad missed my graduation, but I guess that time it wasn’t his fault. He was sick. He was already ill, and this final project pushed him too far,” said Gen, blinking back tears. “I held his hand when I got to the hospital, but it was already cold.”
Tears trickled down his worn face. He wiped them away and rose to survey the back wall. His picked a knife with serrated edges on both sides, turning it over in his hands.
The blade glinted in the light.
The stapled papers fell.
Pin ran back to the living room and scanned it in a panic.
“I’m not a cyborg, I’m a girl, a real girl!” She grabbed a water bottle, twisting the cap free. “Look, I can prove it!”
The bottle opened, water sloshing inside, and Pin held it against her open mouth. Gen froze as he watched her. She hesitated, never having done this before, but brought the bottle to her lips and poured. The water collected in her throat until she had no choice but to spit it back out, spraying all over the couch and Gen.
Pin never heard the rest of the insult; she was already running. There was no time to apologize. She slammed several times into the back door, wood splintering, until the door came off its hinges. It smashed against the ground and she scrambled over the damage, running out into the clear morning air.
Sunlight burst across the horizon and painted the streets golden. Pin skidded down the road and turned into streets at random till the towering structure of Big Ben loomed overhead. She sprinted toward the broken bridge, her bones aching—though now she knew they weren’t bones.
A fragment of concrete caught her foot and Pin tripped, scraping her elbows on the ground. She dragged herself up, ignoring the large ditch below, and kept going. Gen’s pounding steps couldn’t be heard, but Pin didn’t wait for them to catch up with her.
She ran on till she reached the familiar sight of the abandoned high street. Pin skidded as she saw the bakery, panting hard. She darted around the corner to the cul-de-sac, finding Lisa still swaddled with vines. Relief nearly buckled Pin at her knees as she tried pulling vines away. The robot slowly powered up. When Lisa’s battery bulb blinked red on her chest plate, a worrying thought grew inside Pin.
“Pinterry, you came back.”
“And you’re still stuck,” said Pin. She tore the smaller vines, but the large ones were too thick to pull apart.
“I could not pull myself free. I am a library assistant, Pinterry, not a workbot. I have nothing sharp to cut through these vines.”
Pin thought of the knife that Gen carried but shook it from her mind. She had to find another way to cut through the thickest, most tangled vines.
“Pinterry, where have you been? I waited quite a while,” said Lisa.
Pin hoped Lisa had been as relieved to see her as she was to see Lisa. She slumped back on the ground in frustration. The vines were just too strong to break through.
“Two in one. Guess the day just gets better and better.”
Pin turned in time to see Gen plunging forward with the knife. She darted to the side, hoping the knife would cut the knot of plants instead.
But Lisa had leapt in front of Pin, shielding her from Gen.
And Lisa’s battery box bled its black fluid, a thick trail seeping onto the green vines.
Pin screamed. Lisa staggered back and collapsed onto Pin’s leg, vines ripping apart from the force of her fall. Pin flung the knife to the side and tried to stop the battery from leaking. Black fluid stained her hands and warm tears streamed down her face.
Lisa’s mouth faded into a strange peach color.
“Lisa,” Pin cried. The robot’s eyes had pinprick circles of green that flickered as they sought Pin before fading into black.
“She’s just a robot,” said Gen.
Pin grew furious. “She’s not just a robot! She’s my friend.”
Gen grabbed the knife from the ground. He hesitated a moment and Pin jerked herself free, the metal of Lisa’s screws catching her skin. The silicone tore, but no blood escaped from the superficial wound. Only metal bones were bared.
Pin saw her bones, but before she could get away, Gen drove the knife into her. She cried out and limped away, grunts and groans escaping from her lips. And as her small frame struggled to turn the corner of the street, Gennaro was stunned into silence, the guilt of murder flitting through his tired conscience.
Quite sure the knife would do no more harm than it already had, Pin pulled it out from her side. The pain had dissolved into a numb throb and only the screech of metal scraping against metal remained. Pin was all metal inside. Had Lisa known of her true identity? Why had Lisa hidden it from her?
Maybe, thought Pin, she stuck around just to protect me. A terrible longing for her friend burned inside, but Pin felt she could cry no more.
She was a scientific miracle in an empty world. A messy patchwork of human and robot, though she belonged to neither.
Darkness enveloped her. Pin remembered a time when her life felt infinite. Infinite, but slow. And now those endless days leaked out of her, drop by drop, draining from her side.
The sun rose once more and Pin felt it was her last. She gazed upon the glorious golden circle rising from a red sky into blue. Cool silence calmed her as rosy light spread across the stumps of trees that stretched out in front of her.
Then, dead leaves crunched underfoot.
Gen trailed around the oak tree until his shadow fell on top of Pin. She didn’t look into his eyes—not because of fear, but from a hatred she didn’t know she could possess.
“All robots must be deactivated,” he said. “It’s for the good of humanity.”
“Humanity? There’s no one left. You and your mum are going to die and the world will be free from your poison.” She stared at the dead branches hanging above, ignoring the ache inside her. Gen knelt beside her.
“Lisa’s gone. My friend is gone because of you.” She blinked several times. “I don’t have anyone else now.”
“I wish that you were real. A real person. I really do. But you’re just not, Pin.”
She glared at him.
“I’m more human than you!”
But he shook his head firmly.
“Robots are wrong and should never have been made. They destroyed the world as we know it.”
She let out a mirthless laugh.
“You can’t blame robots without blaming yourselves. You made us what we are.” The silence hung heavy with her words. “I blame your father.”
Gennaro’s lips tightened into a thin line.
He poked his finger through a hole in Pin’s faded blue shirt, pulling it firmly to rip the cloth. Her smooth, silicone chest had a small mark to the left side. He pressed it gently and a square portion of skin slid back to reveal a glass chamber.
Pin’s heart quaked and quivered, contracting in a silent symphony of beats. Gen could not take his eyes away from it. A real heart—a real human’s heart, a real life—was in front of him, beating for all eternity under his gaze. He reached for the knife, still stained from Pin’s blood, and held it above her.
The glass would smash. Flesh would pierce.
“You’re not scared, are you?” he asked, the words slipping from his lips.
Pin closed her eyes tightly and gripped the yellow grass on either side of her. Her lips trembled and something strange and heavy filled her throat. She was more scared than she had ever been—more than when he had chased her through the city, and even more than when she’d seen Lisa’s fluid.
“No,” she lied.
Pin’s entire body shook. Her heart hammered with the force of a mighty mallet against the glass chamber, but she didn’t hear it. Her skin burned, ignited by both fear and the lie. The heat engulfed her. Her heart was going to break the glass, break her body, and break Pin into tiny pieces of insignificance. A shattered, metal corpse that no one cared about.
But Pin wasn’t insignificant.
She had loved and was loved back, here, on Earth’s soil. And so was Lisa. Lisa may have gone, but her kindness would never die. Her silver face appeared in front of Pin and she heard the robot’s clear voice speaking to her. Scattered memories streamed through her mind: of helping Lisa in the library, of Lisa placing a blanket over Pin when the winter wind blew through a broken window, of waking up every morning to see her pile more books on the table for Pin to read.
The endless days of her life receded and Pin’s eyes shot open only to see that the sun had set on another day. Her chest cavity was closed. Pin dragged herself up against the tree, panting hard. The yellow grass beneath her had scorched to brown. Her chest felt heavy and sore, as if it had been through death and back.
There was no trace of Gen. The knife lay on the grass, covered in dried blood. She hugged her knees and touched the wound at her side. No more blood leaked from it. The air had returned to a grim silence; no leaves rustled in the wind. The entire world fell to darkness, but a familiar loneliness remained.
Had the monster let her live?
Exhaustion weighed on her like an anchor. It was as if she had been shuttled from one end of existence to another. She closed her eyes and saw Gen’s tired face looking at her with the knife in his hand, his blue eyes frozen on her beating heart.
Pin couldn’t tell whether she was robot or flesh, wires or blood. She closed her eyes and brought her hand to her chest, feeling the soft thump against the glass chamber inside.
There were other robots in the city. She wondered if she ought to seek them out, or if she would come across another human being.
Deep inside, Pinterry hoped she never would.