As she had promised, Kate followed Aunty Jean into the robot-proving ground without a word. Beats testing robots in a transport parking facility. They waded the ebb-tide round the wall, separating the scientists’ dormitory village from the proving ground, where it ended in the sea to prevent errant robots ingressing. On the beach Kate read a sign, Welcome to Hell-city. Huh? I thought we lived in Zinc City? How is it a hell?
Aunty Jean mouthed words. No questions now. Aunty Jean entirely too good at reading Kate’s expressions. They started down the dusty uneven road that ran parallel to the wall. Kate glanced stealthily at the ground. Wait? Was that …? A robot’s footprint? Aunty Jean frowned. Shook her head. No stopping now! Too dangerous!
Too dangerous? When Aunty Jean talked Kate’s parents into allowing Kate to participate in her latest project, she’d stressed the benefit to Kate’s dream of getting a summer job helping to train robots. How would “too dangerous” every five minutes help with that?
Aunty Jean took Kate’s arm and pulled her alongside for them to walk together into a street running into a westerly direction. Every street corner had a tall egg-shaped steel sentinel. “The Nubian-class robots, at present folded-up and at rest,” Aunty Jean said. “They are one hundred percent smarter than the Martian-class robots.” Common wisdom said there was nothing to fear from the Nubians while they slept. Duh. So the Nubians were dangerous to humans when they were awake?
Finally, Kate saw what looked like the garbage mountain Aunty Jean had installed to discourage snooping. “This way.” Aunty Jean led Kate into a narrow alley between two concrete house-and-yard walls that ended at a T-junction, down two right turns and they were in a backyard. Two large chicken-wire clad aviaries, both filled with cooing pigeons, left only a narrow path between to a house door.
“Make yourself at home. I need to go out and I may be gone the rest of the day.” Aunty Jean showed Kate the guest room and bathroom. “Okay if I go out too? Explore?” Kate said. “Any other humans in this town?”
“Other than the robots, everyone is human,” Aunty Jean said. “Explore? Without knowing how the proving ground, the robots, or the people work? You’re to stay at home. Your grandfather’s marine telescope is in the comm-room. You can look out of any window so long as you stay out of sight. And also, out there I’m known as Harmless.”
Kate laughed. “People think you are harmless?”
“Out there my name is Harmless,” Aunty Jean said.
Scrim stood by the window of his high-up, chewing the crust he found. The whole top of a loaf of bread. And he got a half-eaten fruit this morning. He looked out over his ground. Two Nubies sat folded up in their steel egg-shapes, one at each end of the street. One of them Yellow Leg–his leg had yellow steel–who supposedly slept, but probably knew everything going on.
When he finished the bread, Scrim was still hungry. He raced his mind over the hell. Where is there more food?
Fingers sat folded in his tall egg-shape at the bottom of Scrim’s high-up. Always there, always guarding. On his way out, Scrim laid his hand on his friend’s ID pad, so Fingers might know Scrim had left the high-up.
When Fingers felt Scrim’s hand, he raised his head and slid his steel shoulders-and-arms free from the egg-shape. Every couple-of-months Scrim asked the same. “Why did them scientists put men, all-you, in steel cans and call you robots?”
Fingers got his name when Scrim-friend replaced his left-side finger blades with toe bones off a dead Nubie. He was the only Nubie who could handle things without cutting them. But Fingers still talked by skitzing his finger blades. “Some-of-we can sense their every part. They teach us to know that we are still whole men. More secrets to keep, Scrim-friend.”
A no-answer meant the Nubies-themselves still dint know. Scrim put the secrets in his heart alongside all the things Fingers told him for Scrim’s future. The dolphinate mate for life. The silver is magic. The mud is alive. Fingers and Scrim are of the dolphinate. “Whisper me about the three cities,” Fingers said.
Scrim leaned against Fingers’ shoulder where the mic was. “Humans say we are a hybrid. Human-dolphin, at first equal shares. For twelve generations, only the dolphinate lived in the delta. Our people were made by the scientist who brought us to the delta after she bought it from an overlord. He died, the three cities grew, and farmlands spread into the old floodplain. Farmers come into our creeks to swim and fish …” he stopped. Sometimes he remember-dreamed how Hell-city’s hunters stole little-Scrim. “The hunters come into the delta to make us fewer?”
“The cities force them to take a quota of us in return for hay from the delta for their camels,” Fingers skitzed. “These things I heard while serving them in their tents, while we traveled here.”
Scrim’s stomach grumbled. Give me more food it said. Out in the street he heard Harmless talking here and there. “I have to go,” he said. “Get more food.”
Read the rest of this story–by Arit Reede, my username on the Worldbuilding Magazine site–in the Gender & Relationships issue of https://www.worldbuildingmagazine.com/