Prompt: The first child raised by artificial intelligence goes out into the human world for the first time.
Elta was the city of the future. All the signs said so, and they weren’t liars like the signs down in the medicine district. Even in its earliest stages it promised the world’s cleanest streets, automaton public servants, and a grand subterranean clock that would keep everything on schedule for all time, provided someone occasionally went down and scraped off the rust.
The honeymoon period for Elta and its citizens went on for nearly a year. It seemed like bad news wouldn’t stick to the papers at all. Shops and schools opened left and right, even one that exclusively sold ornamental scissors meant for opening such shops.
There were problems though, minor ones, that eventually tempered some of their enthusiasm. It was very easy to lose things if you had clumsy fingers. Elta’s buildings, great constructs of wood and brass, all existed on the same base-plate of metal, the largest such creation in the history of the species. It had many engineered holes to vent the steam from its central clock and water management mechanisms.
These parts were constantly in motion, the various layers occasionally lining up and forming a viewing hole that let people see far down into the city’s complex machinery. They were safe on grates and walkways, but any small dropped object could easily slip through and be lost forever in the great mechanisms: coins, papers, packs of gum, chocolate…
In one case… an infant. It was the first real tragedy of Elta. His mother was scatterbrained, especially since she now let the automatons of the city do most of her thinking for her. She was ecstatic, as she had not only given birth to a healthy plump little boy, she had also given birth to various articles in the society sections about her budding family.
She was in the midst of telling one of the automatons following her, carrying her shopping bags, how important each and every article was when she realized her child grew heavy against her hip. The automation couldn’t understand her, its golden domed head lacked ears of any sort, and the other automation, the traffic controller clearing the way for her, didn’t have the arms she assumed it had.
She tried to hand the child to it by holding the baby out and rubbing it against the automaton’s chassis. Then she let go, mid-sentence, mid-word. That word was motherly. The child slid off the side of the machine and fell off the side of the walkway, down into the spinning cogs and gears of Elta’s ground-works.
There would be a few more articles about her motherly qualities, but little else was said about the poor child. Surely he had died almost instantly, splattered between pieces of the machine, his blood and bones slowly spread as a skin over the city’s guts. People tried not to think about it. In doing so they never considered the one in a million chance, the chance that the child fell at the perfect moment, when every hole in the machines lined up, and landed somewhere below, safe.
Nine years later, that child emerged from the ground-works. He had been given the name Copper, fitting considering that his two front teeth were made of the orange metal. His other baby teeth had gone and been replaced normally, but not the front two. He needed help from his caregivers to get them back. He looked very clean for a child lost in the gutter; he had fine clothes with no rips or stains. His shoes were tied with mechanical precision.
Copper didn’t announce himself. He simply crawled out of a sewer grate, walked out of an alley, and entered one of Elta’s flourishing open-air markets. The streets were designed to look like cobblestones, but like everything else they were actually metal. The overflowing bushels of fruits and vegetables pushed uncomfortably against their metal sides, slicing a few and filling the air with their rich smells.
Copper breathed it in deeply. He wasn’t plump anymore, but he wasn’t malnourished. In fact, he was perfectly nourished. His hair was thick and lustrous. His skin had a tone so healthy it could serve as the model hue for portrait paint. The only odd thing about him was the two front teeth. A human dentist would’ve gone with either gold or silver to flaunt wealth or something painted a natural white.
“Little boy… little boy are you lost?” a woman in a lovely peach dress asked. She crouched down to his level and set her basket of root vegetables aside. She reached out and pushed his hair off his forehead with one soft hand. He reveled in the sensation of her skin as well, even more so than the scents of the food.
“It smells so fresh,” he said. He looked happy, even though he didn’t smile at her. His caregivers never smiled. They were simply the workers of the underground: automatons meant to polish and replace anything faulty or damaged. The people of Elta had given them a human, so they made sure he was always in perfect working order.
They put him to bed on time: the same minute every single night for nine years. They brushed his teeth with their scrub brushes, gathering his health supplies and food from the highest levels of the underground near the market, where clumsy souls always dropped plenty of fresh goodies. They rocked him to sleep with the ticking and tocking of the grand clock that ran everything from trains to pet food dispensers. According to the automatons, he could’ve lived that way forever, to the edge of reasonable human life, 100 exactly, with no time after the decimal point, without ever going up.
“Have you never been to the market before?” the woman asked the little boy.
“No,” he answered. His little face scrunched up in thought. “I don’t think I’ll spend the night up here. I can’t sleep without the tick tock lullaby.”
“The lullaby. Elta sings it to me every night, down there.” He pointed off and down, to the alley and the sewer grate. “It’s a really simple song, but it’s very relaxing. I can show you if you want.” The woman frowned. The child seemed to suggest he lived in the sewer. Nobody in Elta was homeless. If anybody was, then the automatons quickly swept them away and put them somewhere else, under some rug of a town somewhere.
“Alright, you show me,” she agreed. She took the little boy’s hand and followed him away from the noise of the street and the leafy smell of the vegetables. The tin-and-fish-skin smell of the alley took over. It was strange to her because the alley was as clean as everything else; she simply smelled the bits of grime that had made it down into the ground-works.
The grate was quite large, probably to accommodate the automatons that needed to clean it. The woman stared down into the darkness, feeling sadness for Copper. She realized he had to be the babe lost to the gutter that handful of years ago. She turned to console him, to promise him a school, friends, and a proper mother to tuck him in and sing him real lullabies.
While her back was turned a brass lift, a cage really, rose out of the open grate. Its door swung open, and a brush-headed automaton wrapped its metal arms around her waist and pulled her inside. She didn’t even have time to scream before it was all back underground. Copper crawled in after and closed the top.
It was his idea, a very human idea, to spread the lifestyle of the ground-works, to make everything about humans regulated and healthy. The woman was scared now, but after a few nights the tick tock lullaby would surely be soothing. Then Copper could pop his head out again and show somebody else.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by john_mccartney during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!