Month: October 2023

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.”

My Android Mother

Growing up, I didn’t really get how my mother was different from the other moms. And I never questioned her love for me. She made picture-perfect pancakes with strawberries and whipped-cream in the morning, strolled with me through a park or a museum in the afternoon, read me fairy tales before bed, and told me she loved me before she planted a dry kiss on my cheek and cooed, “Good night, honey-bunny”.

I took her quirks for granted—her phobia of water, the faint scent of rubbing alcohol on her skin, the way she lifted the fridge with ease when a pea rolled behind it, the quiet whirring when I put my head against her chest.

Maybe I was slow for not putting two and two together. But I never gave any of it a second thought. It was just the way Mom was.

Summer, I sat in the pool with my best friend, Betty. Shrill squeals of laughter erupted from mouths with missing milk teeth. The sun bounced off sunglasses and soda pop bottles. My mother lounged on a chair in capri pants and a white turtleneck, a lifestyle magazine flicked open to the same page for hours. Now I think back on it, I bet she was ‘reading’ hundreds of books at the same time, while keeping her eyes on me.

“Why isn’t your mommy wearing a swimsuit?” Betty asked.

“She can’t swim.”

“Isn’t she hot?”

I shrugged. The temperature never seemed to affect my mom. When icicles hung from the eaves like teeth, and I pretended every breath out was a puff of cigar smoke, she’d run to the store without a coat. She’d be forgetful like that.

But she balked at going out into the rain. If we were in town, we’d wait outside the bakery and listen to the pitter-patter on the striped awning. I craned my neck and stuck out my tongue to catch the rain drops that dribbled from the scalloped border. On our way home, I splashed into puddles, delighting in Mom’s horror.

The Last of That Strange Wine

The ferryman sipped the last of his ouzo and waved me over.

“I’ll take another,” he said as I walked the length the bar. I grabbed a bottle and gave him a long pour. He raised his glass to me, then brought it to his lips.

“I’m tired of coins, you know,” he said.

I knew, but just gave him a questioning look.

“What use are they to me?” He drank the last drops from his refilled glass and stood. “I don’t even need them _here_.”

It was true. All our drinks were free.

“See you tomorrow,” he said on his way to the door.

“Tomorrow,” I replied.

Soon, I was closing up the bar for the night. As I worked, I tried to keep my mind from the pull, that constant ache in my head telling me that I didn’t belong here, that I should be across the river.

I washed the glasses and put everything back in its place. I didn’t need to check the bottles; after all, they’d all be full again tomorrow morning.

Well, all but one.

I went into the back room where I slept, thinking about that strange skull-shaped bottle of wine that I kept out of sight below the bar. There was one drink left — for me, when my wife Helena joined me here on the shores of the Acheron.

Old Girl

He lets me ride up front all the way to the clinic, lets me hang my head out the window and feel the breeze rush through my hair the way he knows I like but seldom lets me do.

He doesn’t talk to me the way he usually does. Even when we’re sitting in the waiting room, he just stares at the tacky sail boat wallpaper and runs his fingers through my hair. I’m not sure what’s wrong. None of this feels the way it did the other times we came to the clinic.

I try to nestle in close to him. To comfort him, even though I’m not sure what it is that’s bothering him. He pushes me down and there’s no brightness to his eyes when he looks at me.

I feel the weight of his sadness on my heart and I too sit and stare and wait.

The doctor comes in and lays a blanket on the metal examination table. It’s a dingy pink with cartoon characters from an old movie for kids.

Master stands and helps me sit on the table. It’s hard to sit on, even with the blanket there, and it hurts my butt to sit still. The doctor puts a hand on my back to steady me, looks down at me with a smile plastered on his face. Doing his best to help me feel at ease.

But why shouldn’t I feel at ease? I’ve had shots and vaccinations so many times before.

The doctor looks over to master.

“How old is she?”

“Eighty Seven.”

Doc makes a low whistling sound. “She’s an old girl. What’s wrong with her?” He glances at my arms and legs, turns my face with his hand.

“She’s not been herself. Doesn’t have the energy she used to. Spends most of the day laying around.”

“Well that’s pretty normal, especially at her age. Has she been getting sick?”

“Yeah. She’s been throwing up a lot. Blood in her stool. I can tell she doesn’t feel good.”

My heart skips a beat. I’d wondered why he’d spent so much time looking at me the last few days. I swore it was just something I ate. Did he really think something more was wrong with me?

“Well at her age, this kind of animal, you usually see the liver and kidneys go first. A lot of what you’ll see is that sort of sickness before the end.”

“I know. I put it off as long as I could. I just don’t want her suffering.”

“You did the right thing bringing her in. Its the hardest part of pet ownership,” the doctor says.

So that’s what this was about. Dread tingles my spine. Cold clutches my heart.

“Do you want to be in the room?”

Master looks at me with those sad, dim eyes.


The doctor nods and turns his back to us, opening one of the cabinet drawers and grabbing a prepackaged disposable syringe and a vial of clear fluid.

I breathe out a ragged sigh. I don’t blame my master. I’m not what I was. My health degrades each day. I did feel sick, I wasn’t myself.

Master pets me gently. Holds me firmly on the table.

I start to shake. Tears form in my eyes.

The Doctor grabs my arm, turns it over, exposing the veins. He sticks the needle in, flushing the reservoir.

Master looks away, to the wall behind me.

A smile twitches at the corners of my lips. He’s an old robot. But always kind to me. I felt his love. We’d had a good run together. I hope, as the chilly fluid swirls through my veins, that he finds another human to help comfort him in this lonely world.

Eric Fomley’s stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge, and elsewhere. More of his stores can be found at

Making the Most of Our Moonlight

Ash hugged the bark of the nearest tree as her nerves got the better of her. Some wood flaked off against her palms, leaving them sticky and gritty. It had only been an hour or so that she’d been hiking northward up the small hill, heading toward the cottage at the top. The lamp of the cottage shone ahead of her, almost as bright as the full moon—although there was no moon tonight. Maybe a full moon would’ve been a better night to try this, but Ash couldn’t wait that long. Her boss Breaker wanted her to come home with a good score tonight, and the guards in the fancy neighborhoods in town knew her. Ash didn’t dare show her face near any of the homes she used to burgle. Now—desperate, hungry, trembling with nerves—she was picking her way up the hill to rob the maiden of the moon.

Not the best idea she’d ever had, but then Ash didn’t have many good ideas to her name anyway. If she returned empty handed, well, she probably wouldn’t even have hands after that. Breaker was all out of patience with her screw ups. He’d said as much.

She moved quiet-quick through the brush, her soft, small feet making no sounds as she crept up on the cottage. The lady of the house was not asleep in her bed as any respectable woman should be at this time of night. Instead she stood on her balcony, a robe of slippery silver fabric spilling off her shoulders. Her clothes were very fine, but they were old-fashioned robes and nothing like the blouse and cotton skirt Ash was shivering in. The woman’s hair was silver, but not grizzled like an old woman’s usually was. It hung in a shining curtain down her back. Her face was young too, unlined, serene as she stared at the sky, the starlight bathing her like a benediction.

Ash’s stomach twisted as she gazed at the silver lady. An ache started in her gut that had everything to do with hunger, but nothing to do with food.

Foolish. Ash rubbed her fingers together, nerves itching as she watched and waited. The silver-haired woman showed no signs of moving, no sign of retiring to her bed. It made Ash’s job harder but not impossible. She would just have to be very quiet—

“What are you looking at?” The woman’s voice was not silver, but a high, clear tone, like a fingernail clinking against glass. She turned her head, gazing into the line of trees where Ash stood.

Ash froze, her heart hammering, and bounced on the balls of her feet. She should run, but there was nowhere to run back to, dammit. She needed this score. Breaker’s patience for her was at an end. She might hide from him for a few days in the city, but all her friends worked for Breaker too. Tears pricked her eyes.

The woman lifted one hand, beckoning. “Come, sit with me awhile. I don’t often have visitors. And you are cold and hungry.”

Ash hesitated, blinking and shocked. Did the maiden not understand? How sheltered and naive was she? Ash and her friends had seen her sometimes in town on dark nights, nights with no moon in the sky, and always looking a little lost and alone. But just because the maiden had been to town that didn’t mean she was worldly. Would she recognize a thief if one walked up to her front door to rob her?

Ash shrugged. Ah, what the hell. Maybe the maiden would have some bauble Ash could snatch and run off with. Grab and dash wasn’t Ash’s usual style, but her usual style had spectacularly failed to keep her fed and safe. Maybe it was time to try something new.

She crunched her way out of the brush, purposefully being loud. The balcony’s floor where the maiden waited was a little above Ash’s head when she stood underneath it. She hooked a hand around one of the posts and pulled herself up. Hanging onto on the outer side of the balcony, she gazed into the calm face of the silver lady as the railing stood between them.

The maiden was very beautiful up close, her face a study of sharp lines and shadows. Ash was embarrassed by her own dirty face, her ratty clothes. The woman’s skin seemed to glow.

That’s what comes of proper hygiene, I suppose. Ash cleared her throat and forced herself to meet the moon maiden’s silver-blue eyes.

The maiden tilted her head sideways, her eyes crinkling with something that might have been a smile. “You’ve come a long way to visit with me.” The maiden held a hand out to her over the railing. Ash’s mouth went a little dry at the thought of touching that silky, glowing skin. She shook her head and boosted herself over the balcony railing so she could stand beside the moon maiden.

The maiden’s eyes fluttered. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Little Thief.”

Ash puffed her chest out, trying to look offended. “Thief? I’m…I didn’t…”

The woman snorted, and raised one eyebrow.

Ash found a laugh wheezing out almost against her will. “All right. Yes. I’m here to rob you.”

“Why me? Why tonight?” The maiden led the way to a small cache of pillows and furs piled close to the balcony doors. She reclined among the plush silk and gazed up at Ash. Curiosity made her face open, her beautiful eyes wide.

Ash tried not to be too flattered by that interest, by the fact the moon maiden was even talking to her, but it was hard not to be.

Ash sat and folded her feet underneath herself trader-style. “Well, my boss is fed up with me. I bungled a big job the other week and now the city watch knows what I look like. I can’t do my usual work in the rich neighborhoods anymore—or at least not for awhile. And I, well, I knew you were all alone out here in this fancy cottage with no guards. I thought…” Ash’s cheeks burned, and she looked away.

A soft touch on her cheek made Ash jerk, startled as the maiden cradled her face.

“I’m sorry, little thief,” the maiden murmured, “I have nothing to offer you but my warmth. Perhaps you could share some of yours as well?”

She heard the purr of invitation in the maiden’s voice, and Ash’s heart hammered. “I, oh. Um.” Was this a trick? A trap?

The maiden threaded her fingers into Ash’s hair, fingers deliciously tickling at her scalp. “Don’t overthink things, my lovely thief.”

Ash swallowed and eased back, searching the maiden’s face, still unsure even as heat began to coil in her belly.

The maiden snorted and leaned closer, her eyes hooded as she brushed her lips across Ash’s mouth. “I don’t get many visitors.”

Ah.” Ash shoved her doubts away and eased toward the beautiful silver woman, draping her arms around the moon maiden’s shoulders. “And the night is rather cold, isn’t it?”