The Way to Robot City

At recess, when other seventh graders called Nina a weirdo again, she knew there was no hope for her to make friends among her fellow humans. In math class, she drew sketches of robot cities, shading and highlighting their sleek metal structures, glass domes, and tidy squares where robots socialized through short-range wireless connections. She’d never been to any such places, but dreamed of finding friends there, even if they were synthetic.

At the end of the school day, she decided to skip soccer practice and try to sneak into Robot City 6724, the nearest to her town. If she timed it right, she’d be back before her robocar arrived to take her home at fifteen-thirty.

She wore a T-shirt and shorts, like most students leaving the school that afternoon, but she worried she might attract attention somehow. Standing out had always been her thing. For years, she’d required special treatment at school because of her rare genetic disorder that made her prone to fractures. She was always in a cast of some sort, which no one wanted to write on or decorate because they were told to be careful around her. In third grade, she’d undergone multiple surgeries for the titanium implants and the genetic enhancement, to become the only student in school who wore an exoskeleton that year, while she recovered. By the time Nina was free of it, her social life was dead. It didn’t help that she was now faster and stronger than everyone else in her class.

As she waited at the crosswalk outside the campus entrance, she told herself she was part-robot anyway, so it made sense to look for friends among her own kind.

A squeaky voice calling from above startled her. “Where’re you going? You’re supposed to be in soccer.”

Nina swung around to see a fourth grader sitting crisscross on the big rock engraved with the name of their school. She had a round face, curly hair, and a strange name. Something like a plant, but Nina couldn’t remember.

“What do you want?” Nina said.

“To come with you?” the girl said.

Nina looked around. “Why are you out here alone?”

“My dad forgot to pick me up. I’m sure he thinks it’s my mom’s turn.” She shrugged like she didn’t care, but Nina didn’t buy it. “They’ll figure it out by dinner. Can I come with you?”

“Sorry,” Nina said. “I can’t take care of a little kid.”

“I’m not a little kid, and if you don’t take me with you…” She squinted for a moment. “I’ll tell the admin you skipped soccer.”

So much for feeling sorry for that brat.

“Please, Nina.” She even knew Nina’s name. “I don’t want to wait around here for hours until one of them remembers to come get me. All my friends have already gone home.”

At least she had friends.

Nina was about to make a run for it, but she worried the brat would go to the admin, as threatened. Nina’s adventure could be over before it even started. “What’s your name?”


Clover, right. “Listen, Clover, I’m in a hurry and—”

“Oh, I’m fast.” Clover slid off the big rock and was at Nina’s side in an instant.

Nina was impressed but wouldn’t advertise it.

“Where are we going?” Clover said. She didn’t have a backpack, but Nina didn’t care to ask what had happened to it.

“You can come. But only if you stay quiet and do exactly as I say.”

Clover sealed her mouth and tossed the key.

Nina led the way by half a step. Drones buzzed overhead, robocars zoomed by, some people rolled in their special lane on smart scooters. It wasn’t so bad having someone to walk with, Nina thought. The two of them looked like a team with a purpose, so adults didn’t stop them to ask questions. But after a while, Clover began to pant, and Nina realized they were walking too fast. Enhanced bone and muscle tended to do that.

She slowed down, watching Clover catch her breath. Of course Clover wouldn’t complain, not after bragging about being fast.

“You could’ve asked me to slow down,” Nina said.

Clover pointed at her sealed lips.

Nina laughed. “You can speak.”

“Do you have your phone with you?”

“I left it in my locker. My parents track it, so it’ll look like I’m at school.”

“I wish I had a phone,” Clover said, “but my mom says my dad should buy it, and he says she should.” She had a funny way of speaking with her hands, not just her mouth.

Nina didn’t know what to say or how to help. “Sorry, Clover, but I’m not your friend.”

Clover shrugged. “Duh. We’ve just met.”

“No, I mean I’m not trying to make friends.” They turned the corner into a busy boulevard. “Not in this city, anyway.”

“Then where? Robot City?”

Nina didn’t answer, annoyed she’d been so easy to figure out.

“I knew it!” Clover grinned with satisfaction. “Wait, have you ever seen a robot in real life?”

“They’re really cool,” Nina said.

“But are they friendly?” Clover said.

“They’re not unfriendly, and that’s good enough for me.”

“My dad says caretaker robots killed people years ago.”

Nina rolled her eyes. “That was before they broke off with us and built their own cities. Robots are super peaceful now. They’re good neighbors. No more synth caretakers to worry about because now they have the same rights as we do.”

Clover shrugged as if bored with the sudden middle school history lesson, and remained quiet. But she had a strange way of skipping when she walked, sometimes bumping into people, and after a while, Nina switched places with her so Clover wouldn’t be in danger of falling off the sidewalk into traffic.

“What will we do inside their city?” Clover said.

Nina didn’t know. She was too anxious to get there. “I have a plan, don’t worry.”