He taught me to go with him through pathless deserts, dragging me on with mighty stride, and to laugh at sight of the wild beasts, nor tremble at the shattering of rocks by rushing torrents or at the silence of the lonely forest.
—The Achilleid (94 ce)
The fairy house sprouts from a moss-covered tree trunk, small but perfectly formed, sheltered by the spotted cupola of a fey toadstool.
Nestled in dewy curls of turf, the miniature house has been carefully pieced together from a stockpile of twigs organized by diameter and broken to the same length. Tiny flat stones form a path leading to its door.
On his knees in the dirt, Chiron, named for the mythical Greek centaur, tutor to Achilles, leans over the mossy landscape.
The robot moves gracefully, limbs and torso plated in contoured pads over an economy of smooth silver strutwork. Sculpted into lines of classic musculature, each pale plate is comfortable to touch, devoid of pinch points, and easy to clean. Chiron is often smeared with spaghetti sauce or flecked with waxy streaks of crayon by the end of the day, though his infinite patience and love never waver.
The girl beside him, her knees dirty under a maroon sundress, is called Miss Gloria. She is six years old, weighs thirty-nine pounds, and is forty-six inches tall. As a specimen of little girl, she is largely unremarkable. Instead, the incredible aspects of her life come from the intersection of power and politics that finds its locus in her family. As a powerful man surrounded by enemies, Gloria’s father entrusts his daughter only to an ally he has built himself.
To that end, he has spared no expense.
Chiron’s most amazing attributes are not manifest in his elegantly sculpted form, but in the curious patterns of the mind. His thinking and memory are infinitely adaptable, self-preserving, and capable of extracting meaning and wisdom from whichever hardware happens to be available.
Of primary concern to Chiron is, of course, Miss Gloria’s physical safety. After that comes her emotional development, confidence, and self-esteem. He intends to ensure that Miss Gloria someday realize her full potential as a grown woman.
Chiron is well aware that he will be discarded long before reaching this goal, and he is content. He knows that before a sculpture is completed, the scaffolding must fall away.
Crouched at his side, shoulder to shoulder, Miss Gloria knows only that Chiron is an excellent playmate. Not a friend—not exactly—but a presence whose measured voice is steady and constant, if a bit stern. Gloria loves her mentor purely—he is as much a fixture in her life as the rising of the sun and the sight of the constellations each night. In his own way, the machine also loves the girl. Miss Gloria is his life’s work, and she is coming along wonderfully.
A bright red holly berry tumbles from the little girl’s cupped hands.
“Look, Ky,” she says with conspiratorial flair. “Poison berries.”
Slipping, she drops the rest of the berries. They plummet like cannonballs, knocking twigs from the hut’s roof.
“Careful, Miss Gloria,” advises Chiron. “The fairy kings and queens won’t appreciate a broken castle.”
“Then fix it,” demands Gloria.
“Is that a kind way to ask?” asks Chiron.
“Now,” says Gloria, and she plants a small fist against Chiron’s padded thigh.
“I think you should try on your own,” Chiron says, crossing his arms and standing up. “And then I will help.”
“But I can’t do it,” she says, eyeing the slender twigs. Gloria wraps an arm around Chiron’s calf.
“They’re too small.”
The machine does not budge.
With a sigh, Gloria crouches closer to the fairy house. Tongue peeking from the corner of her mouth, she succeeds in picking up a twig. Dropping it, she knocks down the rest of the hut, twigs tumbling from their perches.
“I told you, Ky,” she says, sitting up. “Now will you fix it?”
Chiron does not respond.
“Do it for me,” she insists. “It’s your job.”
“I am your teacher, Miss Gloria,” says Chiron, closing his eyes and turning away theatrically. “My job is to let go.”
Gloria rolls her eyes and punches the leg again, a little grin squirming into the corners of her mouth.
“Fix it,” she begs. “I’ll give you candy.”
“Someday you will be alone and will have to rely upon yourself,” says Chiron.
“Please, Chiron,” begs Gloria. She pronounces his name in exaggerated syllables, Ky-ron. “Pretty please?”
Chiron opens one eye, looking down his long nose at the little girl. He is scanning her face for any trace of deceit. Her growing smile remains contained for the moment, though it threatens to escape.
Satisfied, Chiron leans over and reaches for her.
A man in black walks around the corner of the yard, a long weapon held high, stock tucked into his armored shoulder. Staring down the length of the kinetic battle rifle, the man’s face is wrapped in a flat tactical mask studded with pinhole cameras and striped with mesh. Chiron pauses, still leaning over the little girl, arms extended to swoop her up.
The man pulls his trigger.
Three electromagnetically accelerated slugs hiss from the barrel and flicker across the yard. Lancing into Chiron’s chest, the armor-piercing rounds make a sound like pennies hitting a glass countertop, spraying wreckage as they eviscerate the dumbstruck robot.
The little girl is still smiling up at her best friend, reaching for his neck and not understanding why his features are frozen in place.
Staggered, the machine sags to his knees. Arms slack, his hands lie palm up on the ground. Chiron blinks once, head weaving as he loses power.
“Run away now, Miss Gloria,” he says. “Please.”
But Gloria doesn’t obey. Hurt on her face, she watches Chiron topple over and collapse across the remains of the fairy house.
“Ky?” she asks. “Chiron?”
The gentle expression of concern never leaves the machine’s face, even as his body slumps to the ground. Thin wisps of smoke curl from the scattered holes in his chest carapace.
Chiron dies at Miss Gloria’s feet, there in the little backyard.
The girl shakes the fallen machine, panic in her voice, urging Chiron to wake up as a trotting shadow grows behind her.
A black-sleeved arm wraps around her chest and lifts her away.
Through a gauze of long hair and fear, Gloria does not see the bodies of her perimeter security detail, the men and women who are sprawled where they fell, their complicated armor melted to their bodies in glistening stripes of heat. The laser strike took place from a distant hill. The necessary equipment was expensive, but effective.
The mercenary designated “Alpha” is relieved the mentor robot succumbed so quickly to a straight kinetic loadout. An unknown model with unknown security capabilities, the machine called “Chiron” represented a potential quandary.
You never know what these military contractors put into their machines.
Surveying the scene through the tactical battle visor over his face, Alpha scans for body heat or vibration or electromagnetic interference. He pauses at the sight of a flickering pulse guttering in the shell of the robot, but dismisses it. His subordinates Bravo and Charlie are arriving in a black SUV, their identities cloaked by thermally shielded balaclavas.
Alpha shoves the squirming child into the back of the vehicle. Charlie takes the girl in his sinewy mechanical arms—robotic replacements after some mission gone terribly wrong. Meanwhile, Bravo clambers into the passenger seat to make room for Alpha.
In the back, Gloria is shouting the name of the dead machine. She is kicking, fighting to reach the window. As a hand goes over her mouth, she glimpses her friend’s body, eyes open, still lying on its side in the yard.
The vehicle speeds away, tires spraying clumps of manicured turf.
In the damp grass, an equation is unfolding. An algorithm wends its way through Chiron’s failing mind, collecting his vital processes. The experience, memories, and personality of the machine gather in a cocoon of mathematics. And consuming the robot’s last spark of electricity, the code tenses itself to leap. . . .
*** Reboot. ***
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel H. Wilson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.