The Metal Child

These were the first words he heard his father speak: “How many lifetimes must it take for humanity to correct its mistakes? An individual is capable of redemption, even if it takes a thousand acts of repentance, but with every generation, the count is set back to zero. If not our children, our grandchildren will repeat our sins. This is the problem with mortality. There is nothing that can be done when humanity’s vices are fed by death. That is why I created you: my immortal son; my metal child.” The doctor combed the newborn robot’s fine, dark follicles and was familiar with each hair; he had implanted them all by hand. The doctor wanted some sense of purity and independence, so he modeled the robot after himself at twelve. It was a nostalgic age for him. His father had bought him a telescope and the young, foolish boy he was thought he could see all the Universe’s workings through such a device. It wasn’t until after he had received his doctorate in robotics and built war machines for the military that Dr. Ferreira finally saw that humans were an imperfection on the great face of the Universe. But he realized that he had no right to judge. After all, he was human himself. Dr. Ferreira programmed his metal child with full realization of his ability to self-destruct, exploding the entire world in a blast over fifty times more powerful than a hydrogen bomb. The doctor relished in the beauty of nuclear fusion, the volatile reaction to atoms fusing. “In life,” he said one morning, “the meeting of two different entities always leads to conflict and violence. This bomb I have created is the embodiment of that concept. But now I have created an angel to carry out the will of the Universe.” Even though he had birthed his metal child for such a grim task, he did not program the choice into the robot. He made sure not to program any function that would “force” the robot to do anything. But this mission was vital. So every morning, while working on the final touches, the doctor would turn on his robot and tell him, “You’re going to have to make a choice, my child. As soon as you deem the world beyond salvation, you will have to self-terminate. It is the only way to save them.” Then, he would deactivate him and continue working. These were the only words the robot heard for 570 days since the first morning he was activated. In order to properly understand and judge humans, Dr. Ferreira built his robot to be as human as possible. He had been created with simulated flesh and nerves that processed pain and pleasure. More importantly, he had free will. Unfortunately, the doctor found that he could not effectively create a way for the robot to process living matter into energy. He could not eat, and he could not die. These were the only differences between his metal child and human beings. Following his father’s verbal command, the metal child added it as one of his primary subroutines. Every second of every day, his operating system would present him with the question, “Do you deem life to be beyond salvation? Y or N.” Since he found no logical reason why it should not, he would always choose “N.” If the metal child deduced that humanity was beyond salvation at any time, the world would end that very moment in an explosion that would set fire to the heavens. As a failsafe, his system would review the data for errors for a period of seven days before he set off the bomb. In the end times, there would be no mistakes or faulty logic. His father had built him well.

It was another few years until the scientist let his metal child out on his own, and this was only when the man was on his deathbed. Though he loved his child and wanted to keep him close, he had kept his creation from his objective for too long. “My metal child, you must go and see the world. See everything. Bear witness to the generations and gather your data. It is something we mortals can never hope to do.” He raised his frail, shaking hands and looked at them. He hacked up a wad of bloody mucus and wiped it on his soiled robes. The nurse bot hovered over him but he waved her away. “What about you? What will happen to you, father?” “I’ll die. I am organic tissue. I decay and break apart. Soon, everything I’ve learned will be gone. And only this lab, this research, and you and Sandy will remain.” He coughed again, pausing to catch his breath. Sandy was the sex bot he had created in his youth that he had converted into a nurse bot. Many of the ideas used in the construction of the metal child’s body came from Sandy’s blueprints. “Do not worry about me, my metal child. Sandy will take care of me until I pass from this world. But I will always be your father. Do not worry about that.” He sighed, wheezing out a parched cough. The former sex bot came to apply his oxygen mask. Dr. Ferreira did not have the strength to resist. His head fell onto his left shoulder as if his neck could not hold it any longer. The robot processed these last words his father spoke. He had no trouble entering “Father=0” as a command line, but the idea that his father would cease his existence but still exist as his father was nothing that the metal child could compute. He stored the calculation in his backup memory to be solved at a later date, perhaps when he had acquired more data.

The sun outside his father’s quarters was brighter than the metal child expected. He understood what sunlight was, but he hadn’t completely comprehended its ferocity until he saw the desert sun for himself. His father must have known and anticipated it, though, since the child’s optics immediately adjusted to the light. Within moments, he could see just as well as when he was home. The world outside was hot. Father had provided him new shoes, but they were made of a poor synthetic with a low melting point. By the end of the day, they were sticking to the ground. The metal child’s first lesson was to keep moving.

From the entrance to the doctor’s underground lab, the metal child began walking in a straight line. In a week and five days, the child found himself in a small town. The people there stared at him but most went on with their business. One woman holding a brown bag of groceries stopped when she saw him. “Oh, Lord, bless your heart, child, but you are a mess! Where are your parents?” The metal child blinked. “My father lives over a hundred miles in that direction.” He pointed back in the direction from which he had come. “Though he may be dead now.” The woman stared, slack-jawed. “Oh my Lord. That’s awful! Don’t you have anyone? It looks like you walked all the way here.” “I did.” “Good Lord, child. Come to my house. I’ll take care of you.” The metal child followed the woman, who later introduced herself as “Charlotte. She led him to a white house surrounded by a white picket fence. His historical files informed him that fences like these were commonly used to keep out animals, originally being sharp sticks in the ground. This type of fencing was also used in castles, though usually more as a warning since stone walls were more effective. Some kings and lords used spears and stuck their enemies heads upon them. Charlotte and the metal child weren’t alone in the house. There was another small child who stared at the metal child. “Hello,” he said, executing basic social protocols. The child still stared. His mouth was fixed in a frown and so the metal child imagined he was feeling unhappy about something. “What’s wrong?” The child began crying. “Don’t mind him. Let’s get you something to eat and get all that filth off of you.” The metal child looked at the “filth” all over his body. Apparently, dirt was unacceptable in social settings. “I don’t eat.” “You have to eat something!” “No. My father did not build me with that function.” “Poor thing! Your father must have been so awful for you to run away like that. Please eat something. Just a cookie? You like cookies, right?” She led the metal child to the kitchen. The woman’s child was screaming in the other room. “What’s your name, child?” she asked the robot. “I don’t have a name.” He must have said or done something upsetting, because the woman had tears in her eyes. “Then we’ll just have to give you one. Go on. Eat up.” The metal child began chewing. He could taste it but he could not digest it. “I like it,” he said and spat it out on the floor. “Dear Lord, child! What’s wrong with you? Just eat and swallow it, for Christ’s sake!” “I can’t. Father didn’t…” She grabbed him by the wrist. “You’re not with your father! You’re with good people now! Do you understand? There’s only one father that’ll treat you right and that’s the Father above us.” She pointed to the sky. The metal child followed her finger, but there was only the ceiling and an electric light. “Do you know how to pray?” “No. How do I pray?” Charlotte’s child had walked in the room. He was sucking on his index finger for some temporary oral satisfaction. “Mommy, I’m hungry.” “Not now, Ronnie.” “I’m hungry, Mommy!” “Shut up! Go play with your toys! I’m tryin’ to save this poor child’s soul!” The metal child knew that it was wrong to neglect one’s child. He would make a note of this as one of mankind’s flaws. Maybe they could correct this shortcoming in the next generation, he thought. He would have to see. “Put your hands together.” The metal child watched the woman place her palms together before imitating the action. “There. Now give your soul up to the Lord, Jesus Christ.” “I don’t understand. What is a soul?” “Dear Lord, child! You aren’t one of those atheists, are you?” The woman squeezed together the muscles in her eyebrows and nose. Her lips were pressed hard together and her jaw muscles were tightened. Judging by these observations, the metal child could tell that the woman was most likely offended by the idea. “I won’t have any heathens in my house. You’re going to church with us tomorrow.”

Early in the morning, after a night of minimal processing to dissipate heat, the woman’s husband came home inebriated. She yelled at the man. He yelled back and hit her. The metal child heard it all. When the mother came into the room to wake up her son and the metal child, she had covered her face in a cosmetic solution to cover what appeared to be a large bruise. After sneaking past the sleeping husband, the woman took the metal child over to her sister’s house to get some clothes from her son, who was close to the age after which the metal child had been modeled. The clothes were a little small for him and the child complained that he would rip the clothing. His mother slapped him and they all marched to the church where the metal child would observe their religious customs. The church’s windows had no functional purpose, except to let in light through different colors of glass. He assumed it had some aesthetic or cultural purpose. The benches were uncomfortable, suggesting that this was either an establishment of low economic backing or that the people here were not meant to relax. He ruled out the first possibility due to the decorative pieces on the wall. A wooden man hung as a centerpiece above the pew. The religious head spoke much about sinners and redemption after they had died. If what he was saying was indeed true, he would no doubt have to self-terminate. Redemption would have to come from living persons according to his mission’s parameters. The ritual included the moistening of his head and granting the metal child a Christian name. The name they gave him was “Michael.” He accepted it and used it when necessary, if only to appease the humans he encountered. Better than the shocked responses he received when he told Charlotte that he had no name at all. He would need to mix in with the human population. He also deduced that his inability to eat disturbed people. He would have to somehow hide his inability to digest organic matter in order to complete his mission. This did not come easy. Many times, he would be picked up by child protective services and have to run away after a few days. The parents would become increasingly worried over his lack of appetite. Often times, they would return him to child protective services, not knowing what to do any longer. One family barely noticed. He was with them for over a week before they caught on that he hadn’t been eating. They tried forcing food down his throat but gave up when they could not pry his mouth open, they phoned the authorities. The metal child was able to ascertain valuable data about the variations between selfishness and empathy in humans.

The metal child visited Ronnie’s great grandson at one point. He still lived in the same town, though it had grown considerably. His home was enormous as well and he was intrenched in local politics, even running for governor. Still, he neglected his children’s needs just like his great great grandmother. He bought them many toys and games, but he groomed them to be just like him. If they strayed on any point, if they were upset about his being too busy with his business or politics, he would point out that the boy was to inherit it all. He didn’t seem to care, though, and the metal child saw a sort of helpless fury in the man as he hit the child and ordered him to be locked in his room.

The longest he spent in one place was in Paris for 71 years. He lived under a bridge in a tent along with a smattering of other homeless people. Only a few people knew him long enough to know something was wrong with him. Many didn’t last very long. Many did not make it through the frigid winters and the hot summers. The stench in their tent was overpowering in the sweltering heat, but still people would go as fast as their legs could take them to rummage through their lost neighbor’s pockets. Most didn’t care about the metal child, though. He usually obtained a lot of money for a panhandler, since he was designed as a child, but he had no need for it. He would usually hand it out to the other homeless people and they didn’t ask questions. He became their “angel.” One man named Jean never took money from him, even to the point of completely ignoring his existence. The metal child was curious about this behavior, so he came to his tent one day with a baguette to “break bread.” The man was lying down, facing the other direction, but the metal child could tell by his breathing patterns that he was awake. “Wha’ d’you want?” Jean said without turning over. “I want to break bread with you. I brought a baguette to share.” “I don’t want it. ‘s poison!” “No. It’s just bread. Why do you think I would poison you?” The man rolled over then and gave a blank look. “You remind me of my son. You look… like my boy. But you don’t have a… a face!” “I do. I have a face right here. See?” The metal child enacted a smile. “It doesn’t… reach your eyes,” he brushed his rough fingers around his wrinkled eyes. His pupils were large but unfocused. “Some kinda monster. Poison.” The metal child noted this absence of eye muscles working in his smile. He corrected it by wrinkling his eyes. The homeless man began hitting his head on the ground. The metal child had seen Jean do this before. “Why do you keep hitting yourself in the head?” asked the metal child. The man gave a broad smile that wrinkled up his eyes so that there were great fissures molded into his face. “Because it feels so good when I stop.” The metal child took a photograph for his memory. This was what a smile should look like. One long winter, the metal child lived with Kanita, a blind ascetic in Thailand. He took shelter in her hut built in the mountains. The snow was becoming so thick that the metal child would probably sink in it and have to stay the entire winter buried and numb. He was fortunate to have found this nun out in the wild. She thought of their meeting as Karma being fulfilled, that he was meant to learn from her. So she taught him about Buddhism, about the seven-fold path and the thirty-two parts of body meditation. The metal child thought it peculiar she would hold to these teachings about the body when she only had thirty-one parts, lacking her vision. The metal child did not have half of the parts, even, many of them being internal. One could argue that he had none since he was a synthetic being. But still, he tried tuning himself to these “human” parts and then to his more “robotic” aspects. He would spend days just listening to the hum of his internal batteries. Then one day, Kanita broke meditation with an observation. “Sometimes my meditations lead me to believe that we keep meeting the same people in every lifetime.” “I’ve met many people,” the metal child replied, not opening his eyes. He had become used to not using this particular sense. “Then perhaps you’ll be a wanderer in every lifetime. It takes a special person. If the Buddha did not venture out of his palace, think of how small his world would have been. I have heard of Jainists as well who walk about the land with only bare feet and brooms. It sounds like how you came to me, Michael.” But the metal child was not Buddha, not even human. “I don’t know if I believe that I will reincarnate, Kanita.” “Everyone does, unless you really believe you are the Enlightened One?” “No. Not me,” there was a long silence again, though short in comparison with most they shared. He listened to Kanita’s breathing. There was a faint rasp, always a faint rasp in humans. Each breath ticked away at their lives. The metal child wondered about Kanita. If she was truly in touch with her own senses, he wondered if she could sense his own inhumanity. If she did, she said nothing to him. Most people were skilled at deluding themselves when it came to the metal child, but he thought maybe she was very honest with herself. “What if the entire world were to end?” he asked. “What would happen to everyone?” “If it is our Karma, then so be it. But really, Michael, how likely is that to happen?” “It could happen…” “You think of such dark things. Here, I’ll make some tea for you to clear your mind. We are not Buddha but perhaps we’ll both achieve a better life next time. I look forward to spending this time with you in our next lives.”

Along his journeys, the metal child found again and again that people expected him to be in school. He tried it a few times in a few different continents, but one teacher in Salvador spoke the most to his mission, about the evolution of man. Mr. Thomason was a math teacher, but he desperately wanted his students to understand the importance of the subject. They never did, but that never deterred him from trying to reach someone. Anyone. “Class, this will follow us throughout history. I know you hate math, but we are preserving ourselves by remembering these facts. If we didn’t have all these great thinkers from the past, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We’d be stuck in one era, just trying to think our way past bows and arrows. It’s mathematics that led man to the moon! Come on! Doesn’t this impress anyone?” “It impresses me, sir.” “It… what?” “I’m impressed.” The metal child saw a look of relief on the man’s face, the same look he had seen in soldiers who said they were going back home or the look in the face of a man who found his “true love.” Yet this one only because the metal child had shown him an iota of respect. This man must lead a frantic life to be appeased by such a small thing. That day, he talked to him at length after school. He said that he was interested in teaching, and the man just opened up completely. The metal child realized that this is what this man lived for. He wanted his students to succeed, but most of all he wanted them to follow his example. “You want them all to be just like you?” “Well, not exactly like me. They’re their own people, you know. But it wouldn’t hurt if they learned how to function in everyday life.” “How to function. How to function,” the metal child repeated to himself in the halls. It was a habit he had developed and not known why. Perhaps he was mimicking someone he’d known in a past generation. Many of the people he knew who lived in parks and alleys had little solidarity with one another, just talking to themselves and flinching from human contact. He once knew a man in New Orleans who claimed to be the second coming of Jesus. He encountered the man before when he was prostituting himself for crack cocaine. He may have felt so martyred that he began to believe that he must be Jesus Christ. “This is a conundrum…” “Your face is a conundrum!” some boy yelled out in the hall. That evening, the metal child spent almost an hour looking at his face in his apartment’s bathroom mirror. It had taken him a while, but the metal child had discovered little ways to make himself seem more human. He brushed his teeth twice a day and made trips to the bathroom every two or three hours just to stand there and then flush the toilet. It made him seem more real, even if his body was not. People could accept that illusion. The apartment itself was cozy, one bedroom occupied by a recently-homeless couple now acting as his parents in exchange for food and shelter. The two had barely known each other before but now they were comfortably married with child. Of course, their child never slept, never ate at all. It disturbed them both deeply, but they smiled and ignored it. Most who are hungry for too long try not to bother others with their presence. They forget about the theory behind panhandling and simply sit there, waiting for something. Or nothing. Whatever comes first.

The metal child spent much of his time in Africa. It took him a decades to learn all of the languages. He spent some important part of his life in Namibia, where he found love, or at least love was thrust upon him. A boy, about the age which the metal child was created to emulate, found him stalking about the millet fields one day. The boy was a worker in the field, run by a wealthy Afrikaaner. The metal child accessed a related memory file where he had encounter a child slavery ring. He was taken by them, but the first time he was beaten, he found that he father had programmed a safeguard in his programming. He tore the slaver’s throat out with his bare hands, unable to stop himself. This boy, however, was not malnourished. In fact, he seemed to be hearty and energetic. The owner of the plantation at least treated him with a sense of humanity. The boy offered food to the robot, but the metal child declined. “You must be hungry.” “I’m not.” “Well, don’t stick around too long. You might get me in trouble with the boss.” “I know how to not be seen,” the metal child insisted. “Then I will bring you food tonight. Now go and stay hidden or leave me alone, white boy!” The metal child left and returned at nightfall. There was a basket with some bread and fruit. The metal child did not want to interfere in this human’s life, but he had learned to accept food when it was offered. He took a walk and fed it to the animals in the morning. This routine was repeated for a week until the boy caught him again. “You’re just throwing away the food I got for you!” “I didn’t mean to throw it away. I just thought I’d put some use to it.” “I gave it to you to eat. I went through a lot of trouble to get it for you. Do you really hate me so much?” He kicked at the dirt. The metal child saw no use in hiding it any longer. “I don’t eat.” The boy looked confused. “Are a devil an angel?” He looked torn between wanting to step closer or back away. The metal child gave a trained smile. “Neither. I was made to be human, but I don’t think I am at all.” The boy laughed. “You’re strange.” He held out his hand. “Let’s be friends.” The Metal Child took it. “My name’s Michael,” he said. “Daniel.”

Daniel came to visit the metal child every night to give him food. In return, the metal child would converse with him. Daniel asked him about the world and the places he traveled to, what he thought about the rest of Africa. The metal child spoke extensively on a variety of subjects, though he never volunteered anything himself. Daniel was genuinely interested in the metal child and he thought it was acceptable to divulge his story to this human. At least, it didn’t contradict his mission. At one point, Daniel and the metal child were talking about religion. They were talking about Hell. The metal child had seen a hundred different museums with a thousand depictions of Hell and he described them to Daniel. Daniel, full of righteous fury at first, grew pale at every interpretation of Hell divulged by his friend. “Michael, do you think I am going to Hell?” “I’m not qualified to say so. What does your pastor say?” “My pastor says I will go to Hell.” “Why?” “I’m in love with a boy.” “Is that a problem?” “You can’t love boys! It’s just wrong!” “Then why do you do it?” the metal child asked. “I can’t help it. Maybe I have the devil in me. That’s what my pastor says. And that’s what the boss says before he… he…” The boy looked troubled and also confused, as if he didn’t really know what was happening to him. A sexual relationship with his boss may explain why he is well-fed and why he was able to retrieve so much food. The metal child rested his hand on his shoulder and Daniel leaned in to kiss the robot on his fleshy lips. The metal child tried to emulate the movements of the mouth but the broke off. “Michael?” “Yes?” “Can I run away with you.” A friend might assist with his prime directive, but having someone attached to him would disrupt his human façade. “No.” Daniel didn’t say anything. He got up and left. His face suggested that he was hurt.

A week later, the metal child found out from asking around that Daniel had been caught by his boss trying to leave and was beaten. The boss told everyone that Daniel was a homosexual. Daniel did not deny it. He said he was in love. The boss was able to rile up the people to the point where they decided to stone Daniel to death. The metal child never went back to Namibia.

It took him several generations, but the metal child eventually deduced that mankind would never change. Given his assignment, he had to self-terminate. Before the seven days days were up, he went back to the place of his creation, where his father died long ago. There, beneath the desert, the metal child processed his memories. At the end of the sixth day, he took a moment to assess the weakest part of his metal plating, which part of his head had worn out the most over the centuries. He held the magnum he had brought in his hand and fired into his own temple. His head whipped back and he raised it again, aimed with perfect mechanical precision and fired again. It took him twelve shots before he finally self-terminated. Before the last shot, he smiled and it reached his eyes.

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1 Comment

Filed under Session IX, Short Story

One response to “The Metal Child

  1. awesomepie

    Finally! You know, I think I just wanted to write this because I knew most of my professors would have hated it for a number of stylistic reasons at the very least. I’m not even sure if I like it, but once I became pregnant with the idea, it just kept growing until it became a bit unwieldy. Too bad the labor part felt like trying to give birth to it through my urethra. I spent too much time worrying over this one, so now I don’t have too much time for another smaller project I was planning on doing… well, we’ll see if I can get another one out before the end of the month!

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