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.”

At the light rail stop, they waited three minutes, then got on the red train. Nina rode it every time her parents took her to the hospital for checkups, so seeing Clover enjoy the ride—pointing at a skyscraper, counting the bridges over the river, making faces at her own reflection in the tunnel—made Nina think Clover was a bit strange.

“That’s the HR Market,” Nina said as they got off.

The human-robot marketplace was full of people of both kinds. The stalls were arranged in a grid that was meant to satisfy the humans’ esthetic disposition and the robots’ need for efficiency—Nina had read that in Robot Magazine: Teaching Humans Everything There Is to Know About Machines. But she couldn’t admire the grid from where they stood because they were shorter than everyone else around.

“Never been,” Clover whispered.

“My parents bring me here all the time,” Nina said, not mentioning the doctor’s visits. “Follow me.”

Two biped robots walked by, their titanium-alloy bodies shiny, their servomotors whirring softly. Clover turned to stare at them. On their helmet screens, small icons indicated they were connected to a private network. Speech bubbles meant they were part of a conversation. Nina hoped she’d soon share that kind of connection with her new robot friends.

“What do you think they’re talking about?” Clover said. “Oh, I know, probably just numbers.”

“Everything’s just numbers,” Nina said, remembering her technology class. “And that’s beautiful. Humans are messy, but numbers don’t lie and aren’t mean…”

“I guess,” Clover said, and started toward a side stall, but Nina grabbed her hand. “Stay close or you’ll get lost.” In the past, Nina had held the large hands of her parents or the hands of classmates forced by teachers to keep her company. But Clover’s was a baby hand, which made Nina wonder what it’d be like to have a little sister. Probably a headache, but maybe fun at times.

They navigated the busiest part of the marketplace together. Clover stopped by a knickknacks stall to look at a robot-made windchime, its twirling in the breeze perfectly balanced. Nina pulled her along, but then Clover stopped at the graphic novels stand, and Nina was happy to browse, too.

“Oh, boo, I have no money,” Clover said, putting back The Adventures of Titanium Man.

“I’m saving mine for snacks,” Nina said, “if we ever get hungry.”

“For me, too?” Clover said. “Aww, you’re really nice, Nina.”

No kid at school had ever called Nina “nice.” She felt her skin crawl. “Gosh, you’re such a weirdo, Clover.”

The moment she said it, she wished she could take it back, but part of her felt Clover deserved being called that.

“Whatever,” Clover said, and took off to the next stall, the words “Raw Materials Exchange” printed on its front.

Nina steered Clover away, and they walked deeper into the marketplace, pushing past people with smart shopping carts. Clover stopped to stare in the bakery window, and it didn’t take long for the baker to notice her. He came to the door.

“You want to buy something?” he said, sounding impatient.

Clover looked at Nina, who shook her head.

“Then scat,” the baker said and went back inside.

“Humans,” Nina said. “Never friendly.”

“Can we have cotton candy?” Clover said, pointing to a stall nearby.

“No, we can’t bring sticky gooey things inside Robot City.”

Soon the crowd thinned and they saw the shiny metal city ahead. But the rolling gate was locked, as indicated by the red LED on the card reader. Nina sprinted on, looking for a doorbell or something. Nothing. She banged on the booming metal gate, but no one opened.

“You said you had a plan,” Clover said. “Middle schoolers always have a plan.”

“Middle schoolers are terrible.” Nina took off along the wall, hoping for another gate or door, and Clover followed her, but after ten minutes one way, they turned back to the only entrance they’d found so far. Then Nina went the other way, and around the corner, to where they were out of the marketgoers’ sight.

She looked at the wall. Metal with sealed seams. Not hard to scale.

“It’s too tall,” Clover said. “I can’t climb up there.”

Nina tightened the straps on her backpack. “I can do it,” she said, trusting her legs to push her to the top.

“What about me?”

“I’ll see you when I get back,” Nina said, planting one foot against a dent in the wall.

“You can’t leave me here,” Clover cried.

“You said you’re a big kid.”


Nina’s strong arms and legs did their job, and after a few slips and grabs, she reached the top of the wall. She gave a cry of joy.

Robot City 6724 was everything she’d ever imagined, but shinier and busier and extending to the horizon. She didn’t have time to admire it, though, because a local alarm rang, and an electronic voice said, “You are trespassing. Descend immediately or the guards will arrest you.”

Robots were already heading to the wall from all directions: some were short and on wheels, some were bipeds, some looked like headless dogs. And they were fast. Nina couldn’t outrun them if she’d tried.

She would have hung on for a little longer, but the electronic voice said, “Beginning countdown: five, four…”

Nina let herself slip down, landing at the base of the wall, the pavement hard on the soles of her feet. Nothing her enhanced legs couldn’t take.

Clover was there, too, glaring, arms crossed over her chest.

Nina checked herself and found a scrape on her knee. She couldn’t let her mom see that. She unzipped a pocket on her backpack and picked up a bandage. As she put it on, it changed color to match her skin tone.

“Let’s go.” Nina started along the wall, then around the corner, back to the gate. She didn’t wait for Clover, who had to run to keep up.

“I want to go home,” Clover said when they reached the gate.

“Now we wait.” Nina sat on the ground under the card reader and opened her backpack. “Water?” She offered her canteen to Clover, who took it and gulped from it with abandon. “Hey, leave me a drop.”

Maybe it was Clover’s way of punishing Nina, but the canteen was now empty.

The gate started rolling on its tracks as two robots approached it with synchronized steps. Their bodies had a shiny finish and the screens on their helmets presented neutral identical faces.

“They have garage door openers,” Clover said, smiling.

Nina scrambled to her feet and tried to follow the robots inside, but they swiveled around and said in one voice, “You are unauthorized. Please leave.”

“Can we visit?” she said.

“Do you have a keycard?” one of the robots said, his displayed face frowning.

“Where can we get one?”

“You can inquire with Customer Service,” the other robot said. “Unfortunately, we’re not Customer Service units. We work at the rollercoaster. You must wait for a Customer Service unit to let you in. Goodbye.”

They turned and left, the gate sliding shut behind them.

“They have a rollercoaster in there?” Clover said. “That’s so cool.”

“That’s not why robots are cool,” Nina said with a scoff, returning to their waiting spot by the card reader. “Here…” She dug through her backpack and pulled out the latest issue of Robot Magazine. She read out loud, “They repair themselves faster than humans can heal.” She turned the page. “They have perfect balance of brain plasticity (which allows them to learn new things) and expertise (which allows them to build on knowledge they already have).”

“I don’t know what that—”

“They also read each other’s sensors, so they understand each other’s needs.”

“Oh, no,” Clover said. “I wouldn’t want my parents to do that to me.”

Nina set the magazine down in her lap. “What’s up with you and your parents, Clover?”

“Nothing. You said you didn’t want to talk about it.”

Nina opened her mouth to protest, but Clover said, “Do robots ever get hungry? Or need to poop?”

Nina frowned. “Those are silly questions.”

Clover looked hurt, the first time she seemed to care about Nina’s jabs.

“I’m sorry,” Nina said, and she meant it. She returned to her magazine, looking for a distracting detail to share. “They can sense the Earth’s magnetic field.”

“Good for them,” Clover muttered, but glanced at the magazine.

“And they can charge their batteries super-fast.”

Clover warmed up. “How fast?”

They talked about robots, and time went by. At some point, a woman with purple hair and a tiny dog stopped and asked them, “What are you kids doing here?”

Nina answered, “School project. Do you have a keycard we can borrow?”

“Children aren’t allowed in there. Too dangerous.”

“Never mind,” Nina said, looking around the woman. “I see our chaperones coming.”

“Hm,” the woman said, and walked away.

“You’re so good at dealing with adults,” Clover said.

Nina wished she were as good at dealing with kids her own age.

They returned to their conversation about robots, hoping for someone else to use the gate, but no luck. When her belly started rumbling, Nina asked Clover if she was hungry, and Clover nodded. Nina left her there, with the latest issue of Robot Magazine, in case someone arrived at the gate and Clover convinced them to help. Nina went to the bakery, where the owner became friendly the moment he saw her credit card. She bought two donuts glazed with pink strawberry sauce, and he packed them in a brown paper bag.

As she walked back, Nina anticipated the happy look on Clover’s face at the sight of those donuts. She smiled to herself as she stopped at a water fountain and drank half-a-canteen’s worth. She wiped her mouth, muttering “you’re welcome” to an imaginary Clover, then her stomach turned cold. What if the real Clover wasn’t where Nina had left her? What if something had happened to her?

Heart in her throat, Nina ran as fast as she could, paper bag in hand. She bumped into people along the way, not stopping to apologize, skidding here and swerving there. At the edge of the marketplace, she glanced at the Robot City gate, panting.

Clover was waiting in the wall’s shade, nose in the magazine. Nina felt weird for worrying. She slowed down and approached Clover at a stroll, as if she’d almost forgotten about her.

“Yay,” Clover said when she saw the paper bag.

The glimmer of appreciation in Clover’s eye when she picked up a donut and bit into it, sighing, made Nina feel really good. They each ate their snack, but Nina felt they were doing it together. The strawberry glaze was delicious. That was something the robots could never offer Nina, but she was willing to forgive them a small imperfection.

“Your parents, are they nice?” Clover said, picking and eating crumbs off her T-shirt.

“I guess,” Nina said, her mouth full.

“You’re so lucky.”

Nina didn’t know what to say. She finished her bite. “My parents… they’re always so worried about me. Sometimes my mom looks at me, and I swear she’s just trying to detect sudden cracks in my skeleton. I’m not sure she sees me—actually sees me. It’s hard to explain.” It felt good to tell that secret to someone, but maybe she’d shared too much.

“I’m sorry,” Clover said.

Nina leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. She could hear Clover turning glossy pages, and that felt soothing. Once in a while, she’d open an eye and peek at the gate. Still closed. No one ever tried to use the card reader.

“Do robots have cemeteries?” Clover said, yawning.

“No,” Nina said, “they recycle every part of a discarded robot and build more parts.”

Just then, her back began to tremble as the gate started rolling open. A robot came out, and Nina jumped to her feet while the gate rolled back shut.

“Are you a Customer Service unit?” she said.

The robot stopped and turned. “That’s correct.”

“Yes!” Nina and Clover shouted together. “Can you let us in?”

“Humans are allowed to visit between the hours of nine and sixteen-thirty. Come back tomorrow.” The time on the robot’s chest display was 16:58, close to the end of Nina’s soccer practice.

She didn’t have time to befriend this robot. “We have to go back to school,” she whispered, heart heavy. Her robocar would be waiting for her in half an hour. She couldn’t be late or her mom would panic.

The robot displayed a smiling face on its helmet screen. “I can give you a ride.”

Nina couldn’t believe her ears. “Yes, please.”

The robot pressed a button on its forearm and two short platforms descended from the calves of its metal legs. “Hop on and hold on.”

Nina planted her feet on her platform and grabbed the robot’s left arm. Wheels extended from the bottom of its feet with a hissing sound.

“Clover, are you ready?” Nina said.

“Yeah,” Clover squealed from the other side.

Nina showed the robot the sticker on her backpack with their school logo. “Take us there, please, robot,” she said, not sure how to address it. Her magazines always referred to robots by model number.

“Here we go!” The robot eased its way around the edge of the marketplace, then along the busy street, and into traffic. Cars and trucks passed it on its left, the robot keeping close to the curb. Once the marketplace was well behind them, the robot sped up, the breeze growing stronger in Nina’s face.

“Woohoo,” Clover shouted. “Robots are so cool!”

They rode on the street, along the light rail tracks. It was obviously very dangerous and so unexpected. Nina’s heart burst with a flood of emotions she hadn’t felt before. “Woohoo,” she joined Clover.

“You kids are really having fun,” the robot said.

Yes, Nina had a lot of fun. A long moment of peace and joy, without before and after. She smiled until her cheeks hurt. She cheered until her voice was hoarse. She was there with Clover and the robot, and that was all there was.

The robot came to a halt outside the big rock with the school’s name on it. Nina stepped down, breathless, and Clover hopped right after.

“You’re so great,” Clover told the robot. “And friendly!”

“Of course,” the robot said. “I’m a Customer Service unit.”

“Can we see you again?” Nina said.

“Come by anytime.”

“But we don’t have a keycard.”

The robot pressed a button on its torso and a keycard slid out. “Here you go.”

“How will we find you?” Clover said. “You don’t have houses, right? You dock into the first available charging station when your batteries are low.” She must have read that in the magazine—Nina was so proud.

“Here’s my unique identifier.” The robot printed out a strip of paper with numbers and letters, and gave it to Nina. “Once inside, key it in at any yellow kiosk and I’ll get the call to come meet you. See you tomorrow.” It turned around and sped up toward Robot City.

“Wait,” Nina called after it, but it was too late. She’d forgotten to ask if robots could have human friends. No worries. She and Clover would figure it out tomorrow.

“Wow,” Clover said, “that was so great…”

Nina put the keycard and the ID note in her backpack.

“And there’s my mom,” Clover added, sounding bummed. The woman approaching them carried a light-green backpack decorated with clover leaves.

Clover’s missing backpack. In that moment, Nina felt such kinship with Clover, who didn’t like that obnoxious backpack any more than Nina would have wanted one plastered with exoskeletons. And she felt sad to see Clover go, like something went missing inside her chest and stomach. The last time she’d felt that way was when she said goodbye to her mom, on her very first day of school.

Nina cleared her throat. She was being silly. She’d see Clover tomorrow, go to Robot City together, and unlock the gate with their keycard. There was no need for the tears she felt coming.

Clover nodded at Nina as if they had an unspoken understanding. Then she said, eyes wide with excitement, “I can’t wait to tell my friends I rode with a robot today.”

Her words landed on Nina like a body blow, the familiar experience of being shoved off the playground by hateful classmates. Clover’s friends? Of course Clover had friends, real friends, friends she shared stories with. She’d forget all about Nina when she saw them again.

Nina felt like she’d just woken up from a dream. A nice one, yes, but still a dream, fading by the second. How could she imagine for even a moment she could be friends with a fourth grader? Her classmates wouldn’t stop laughing at her. Hanging out with Clover would mean admitting she couldn’t make friends her own age. She’d deserve to be called “weirdo”—for real this time.

Clover smiled. “We’re going back tomorrow, right?”

“No, not tomorrow,” Nina whispered. “I have a doctor’s appointment right after school.”

Tomorrow Nina would stay away from the big rock at the entrance. She’d try sneaking out through the garage. Once outside the campus, she’d run as fast as her legs would take her to the light rail, on her way to Robot City.


Roxana Arama is a Romanian-American author with an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Her debut thriller will be published in 2023 by Ooligan Press (Portland State University). She’s a member of the Authors Guild and Codex Writers’ Group, and her work has been acknowledged in several literary contests and magazines. She lives in Seattle with her family. More at or @RoxanaArama on Twitter.

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