A mother and an infant sit at the edge of the fountain, watching intricate streams and waterfalls cascading across the white marble in pure silence. Across the way, a group of teenagers stand, whispering softly to maintain the peace. Surrounding them are ever more, flowing in every direction, crossing the core of the world on course to their next destination. Today, as every other day, they have come from across the towering vibrant city, past the holographic screens and platinum skyscrapers to gather at center square to, if just for a moment, breathe.
“Beautiful as ever, is it not?” Beside her an old man stands, admiring the glory of the day. The mother smiles wearily. “It is.”
“I remember when the fountain was created, all those years ago. The silent awe of its beauty. The hush in the crowd. Even now it maintains that reverence.”
The mother holds her child close, gazing down at their innocent face. “It’s their first time. I was in the area, and thought the serenity would do good.”
“Wonderful. The sooner they learn to respect it the better.”
Instantaneously, the child’s face begins to contort. The water’s surface shakes ever so slightly, as the siren starts. They wail, as is their nature, and the mood of the people shifts to quiet condemnation. Her face transforms into one of panicked shame as she frantically hushes the child. The old man rests a hand on her shoulder. “You must go,” he whispers. And so she runs into the crowd, judgemental eyes following her trail.
If the infant were capable of comprehending those events, they’d likely be perplexed. Why is it these strangers gaze with such contempt for one doing only what is their nature? It is not the nature of any newborn to revere a still pond, nor to truly know anything. They act from a need to survive, and through this desire to think and act for oneself they become alive. Even when this nature is suppressed and they learn to sit silent at the water's edge, that drive remains. For the mother, that nature instructs her to conform and obey.
As the woman ambles through the platinum city’s corridors, four figures donned in brown robes cross past. They carry a lumbering container, a solid black to conceal its contents from the pure world’s eyes. It is nature to be curious, but one is soon taught to avoid these cursed ones. They are the unfortunate yet brilliant few tasked with maintaining these hallowed halls. For now, they navigate the labyrinth of streets and corridors, funneling more redacted waste into their obsidian box with each building they pass. As they approach the glimmering outer walls of the city, more join their ranks, all shrouded in the same brown robes, all met before an oily black door. With a moment of hesitation, they push forth and open the gate.
Here, past the neon billboards and shimmering walls is the world that none wish to talk about. Invisible for fear of its true form, yet impossible to destroy. Where that misshapen beyond repair and too horrific to remember rots. Piles of scrap metal and discarded parts flow endlessly through the plains and valleys. For this speck of purity to exist, an abyss of pollution must too.
The figures lower their containers, letting spill sludge and erode metal, before retreating back to their silver streets. It is in this world that something jolts awake, disturbed by the falling trash. A skeleton of wires and circuit boards finds itself, headlight eyes flickering on for the first time in months, surrounded by not but a desert of rust.
The robot remembers not what name, if any, it may have had. It ponders this thought as it stares up at the smog coated sky, clouds of ash rolling above. Who was it? Hinges groan as it shifts to stare at its hands. Metallic. Stiff and filthy, the same shade as the sky. “This will not do.” While it knows not where it comes from it is left with one feeling. A feeling of lost progress, of frustrated grief. And so it stands.
It is late, yet the woman remains restless. Even the brown coats have slept by now. But as a parent she cannot sleep, the child forbids it. Starved of fresh air, she steps outside and begins to walk the corridors.
She cradles the infant. How odd, she notes, that their temper values motion over rest and refuses rest until they have motion. At least they sleep now. She gazes longingly upwards, up the buildings towering infinitely into the heavens above, starlight reflecting off their walls. In the dark, the divide between metal and sky is invisible.
Her pace hastens. At first she was uncertain. Perhaps the sound of some far off machinery, perhaps an illusion created by sleepless daydreams. But she hears it quicken, the noise of steel against stone. She cannot tell from where it comes, it echoes all around, so she turns back and prays.
It’s there. How can it be it stands before her? Beams and cables grafted into an imitation of the human form. A heart of a humming engine, pumping pistons for guts, hands covered in flesh-colored gloves, flickering lightbulb eyes gazing into hers. Though the eyes move not, she can feel them follow as she steps back, analyzing every detail.
“I know you.”
That voice. Laced with secrets, yet hints of kindness. Distorted under layers of static, yes, but there. It steps closer.
“Do you know me, madam?”
It stops, puzzled.
“Why, madam? I mean you no harm.”
It raises its gloved hands, stepping forward.
“You frighten me.”
“But am I not the same as you?”
She runs, gripping her infant tightly. Adrenaline courses through her as she flees from the metal monstrosity. But she stops. It has not followed.
“I see. That’s why.”
One hand on the silver alley wall, it gazes into its reflection beneath the street light.
The woman steps forward, shaking only slightly, fascination overtaking reasonable senses.
“What are you?” she asks.
It pauses, taking in every inch of its form. Disgusting. The glass groans as he drags his fingers across, leaving dull scratches.
“That is what I’d hoped to learn. For now I am undeserving of any title. Until I may free myself of this crackling rust, I am nobody. Until I return to whatever I once was. But if you must call me something, something simple shall do. Rob. Yes, that shall do nicely.”
Turning back whence it came, dragging its feet against the tile floor, it murmurs “farewell.” Bleeding into the shadows, the mechanical whirs fade to silence.
The mother looks down at her child, who has only now begun to stir. She continues her walk, shuddering. It was real.
The day is one of whispers. From the city's edge to center square, rumors of the night course throughout. Some tell of clattering in the night. Others remark on gashes found in the walls, work of some foul monster. The brown coats lurking in the shadows only confirm their suspicions. Some say they heard its voice. They heard someone speaking back.
The woman stares into the water trying to drown her anxiety, but in the reflection she sees only herself, shaking. “Trouble sleeping?” She breaks out of her trance, stumbling backwards as she faces the voice. The crowd parts, the whispers vanish. The sight of a brown coat is ill-omen enough. For one to speak is near unprecedented.
His voice crackles, a drawn out monotone.
A subtle shaking courses throughout her figure. “Calm down,” he commands.
“I hear you are newly with child? Congratulations, Missus.”
“It must be exhausting. Tell me, do you take walks?”
“No, sir. I stayed home last night.”
His body snaps into place, golden eyes shining from beneath the hood.
“I said nothing of last night, Missus. I merely express my concern. ‘Tis a tragedy, what happened to your consort. It must be hard without his aid.”
The shaking resumes.
“I appreciate your concern, but I will manage.”
The figure grins, coat flapping as he returns to the crowd. “I wish you well, Missus… And please, don’t stay up so late.”
He is gone. The void surrounding her fills, but the eyes remain. Alone in the crowd, she gazes into the water. Calm down.
The woman maintains her facade of ease even within the walls of home. Night has come again, and for once the child is asleep. It is raining, perhaps that is why. Eyes heavy, she lay atop her bed, staring at the empty space to her side. In her dream-like stupor, she can almost see him. Oh, how she misses him. The way he breathed, his limping walk. His fascination with machinery and all that sparked his curiosity. Even at death the warmth in his eyes never faltered.
The way he knocked the door.
She’d nearly fallen asleep when it came, that sound. She pitched out of bed, running to the door.
She knew who she’d find on the other side.
Rob, as he knew himself, stood before the door, a sense of resolve coursing through his circuitry. His eyes bore into his reflection in the metal, practicing his smile. The door creaks open.
Seeing the wraith standing before her, she knew not whether to sob or scream. A sagging pale face with a collapsing toothy smile. Motors whir in its mouth as its expression changes into one of slight confusion. Its metal skeleton was hidden by a suit, shades of faded brown leaving only slits in the wrists uncovered. Yet she knew it was the same, the flickering eyes told her so. Those eyes. Cold, lifeless. Inhuman. “Carmine,” it whispered with rattling breaths, "how are you, madam?”
“You know my name?”
The robot pauses, its rubber face grimacing.
“Indeed I do. My programming tells me so.”
“I know not why.”
She inches closer, examining the salvaged face he wears. Just as everything else, it is like his.
“You truly do not remember?”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“But the face, the knock, the name. You knew our house, you knew me.”
“I do as I’m told. My mind tells me to come here, so I follow. The instructions come, but from where is uncertain. Any memories I had are lost.”
Carmine places a hand on Rob’s shoulder. Their eyes meet.
“Perhaps I can show you.”
Their footsteps echoing through empty streets, the pair travel to the town center. A drop of rain falls between the cracks in the machine’s disguise and it jolts, collapsing for a moment. “Are you alright?” He nods. “Where’ve you taken us?”
She gazes over the vacant square. On days like these, above the fountain rests a large brown cover, shielding the water from contamination. “This is where we met,” she utters, sitting upon the marble wall of the pool, looking for familiarity in his vacant face. “It was natural. We talked. You made me laugh so hard I nearly made ripples in the water. It was your smile, your perfect, toothy smile.”
“You were an engineer, adjacent to the brown coats, with your own brown suit and tie. Infinitely handsome, even when you refused a haircut. You worked to maintain our world. Eventually I moved in with you. We had a child, Asha. Always you were with me.”
He takes a seat beside her, gazing upon the circuits in his wrists still sparking from the weather.
“What happened to me?”
“You fell ill. It was slow, and by the time we noticed it was too late. You fought for as long as you could.”
A moment of serene quiet passes through.
“And now, here we are once again. It seems even in death you are here with me.”
It looks into the water too. The moisture has caused its skin to wither. The wiry hair turns thin. Hideous.
The silence is broken by clattering footsteps, columns of light flooding into the center from one of the streets. “Who goes there?” The two jolt upwards. The woman goes pale.
“Run, Carmine. I will lead them astray. We will meet again, darling.”
And so she does. Figures of brown flock to the fountain as the woman runs back into the shadows. Just as they do, the robot begins its own course. Fleeing with a clatter, it too vanishes into the night. She looks back as he runs, as does he. Through the dark and rain, she is left only with one fleeting glance of its flickering eyes. Cold, lifeless. Inhuman.
The crowd around the fountain is restless, as stories spread through the horde. The brown coats have locked the door to the outside, for there are rumors of a phantom haunting the night. Some tell of opening their eyes, the door swung open and possessions stolen. Some wake missing locks of hair, or gashes taken from their clothes. Those who work in the factories tell similar tales. Equipment is stolen, but why is unknown. The story the rumors weave centers about one woman at its core. She has not been seen since it started.
The child is restless. It wails into open air, their mother rocking them gently in her arms. She now sleeps even less than before. She dares not venture outside. Whether fear of the brown coats, of the people, she does not know. The fear of it. She still has not gotten the image out of her mind. The grotesque face, the dead eyes. Yet it is him, is it not? Her love. It has to be, it knows her, it acts as he would. Still something claws at her sanity. Regardless, she knows, she must see him again. She holds in one hand a paper. It slipped in last night, through the cracks in the door. “Tonight,” it reads, “Join me where we first met. I shall wait for you, darling.” And so she will.
Clutching her child in her arms as she walks, Carmine is terrified. She is uneasy bringing Asha but she feels she has no choice. She must know the truth.
She arrives, but it seems he has yet to himself. She walks the perimeter of the pool, hoping to keep the child still for the moment. Then, in a flicker of shadow, he appears. She feels equal sensations of familiarity and unease. Rob is different now, yet very much the same.
He is human. His skin wraps perfectly around his face. The suit he wears fits just right. His hands, down to each fold and spot, are just as they were in life. His grin is natural, his eyes remain hidden under the flowing hair.
He steps forward. Carmine hesitates. By nature, she steps back. Rob's grin weakens.
“Come now, it's me! I’m back, just as you said I should be.”
“So that’s what you have been doing. The robberies, the whispers. So you could recreate yourself?”
He shrugs, putting his hands in the air.
“As observant as ever. It was a challenge of course, finding sufficient targets, avoiding the brown coats…”
He stops. His mind freezes, struggling to answer that question. Why?
“When he learned of our illness he knew he’d soon pass. So he set to work, to provide a companion in his death. Once he was gone, I would return anew. He had not finished me completely, it would seem. So I lay waiting for months, hidden among the machinery, awaiting freedom. And now we are together. It was all for you.”
He takes another step forward. His hair parts, revealing two cold green eyes, flickering lights shining through forever more.
“All for you.”
Carmine steps forward, fleeting bravery overtaking her. She has stopped moving long enough for the child to stir. “Say hello to his child, darling.”
The infant, not yet old enough to comprehend the sight, is frightened. What is this creature before them, so close to human yet not? It is the nature of all newborns to seek companionship, what little they may know of the concept. When one grows, they are taught to value other things, to see only the still pond, but for now the nature of the child is untouched. And they look forward, and what they see is wrong. The baby begins to scream. It is terrified of what does not obey nature, it is terrified of this iron undead. It is terrified of those cold, lifeless eyes.
Carmine steps back. “You are not Rob.”
The robot chuckles, a mixture of confusion and frustration. “Darling, come to your senses.”
“You are but an imitation of what I love. Beneath your flesh, you are but a construct of metal and wires. You are simply told to act as he would, to fake his intentions. But the moment you will find something you were not told to handle, you will fail. You are not human, for you have no nature but your code. You are not him.”
The robot staggers back, tumbling towards the fountain.
“All I wished was to be by your side! I don’t understand!”
“You cannot. You will never be him.”
And she steps into the shadows, disappearing from the eyes of the night.
The robot stumbles backwards. It failed? No, that can’t be. She shouldn’t have reacted like that. The child should not have either. It wasn’t possible. In its mind, it felt the world haze as static filled its vision. “I’ve failed.” And so it falls. As the last of its vision fades, it tumbles into the water.
The people gather once more around the fountain at center square. They stare into the pure, motionless water, content yet uneasy. The more observant of them see the faintest hints of rust in the water. The rest can sense something is amiss. Whispers roar. Something has changed.