Almost Human, by Lbilover

Originally written for a friend's birthday in 2014. The inspiration for this story was a Tumblr post. The artist posted three drawings along with the following caption: runaway robot breaks into a workshop to fix a broken leg but is discovered by the mechanic who works there. Although the mechanic didn't look like Sean, the runaway robot in her art reminded me of Elijah, and I was inspired to write a story about android!Elijah. I've included two of her drawings at the end of the story, since they very much inspired it.



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Travis was drunk. Again. He'd been drinking steadily since he got home from work, starting with Scotch, neat, and continuing with several glasses of red wine with dinner - the dinner he had cooked with such care, knowing how Travis hated when food wasn't prepared precisely to his liking. His attempts at conversation during the meal went nowhere. Travis's response to his 'How was your day?' was a surly 'I'm not in a mood for talking, Nine. Fill my wine glass and shut the fuck up.'


So he did. He was, after all, programmed to please. The ads said so.


After dinner, he cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher while Travis, wine glass in hand, went into the living room. When he was done, he reluctantly joined Travis there. He knew the progression now. Surly always morphed into downright nasty and he inevitably bore the brunt of Travis's foul mood. But then, according to Travis, he was the cause of all his problems.


Travis was slumped in his recliner, wine glass in hand. He had just sat down on the sofa when an infomercial for A-One Androids started playing. He averted his gaze as he always did when the hated commercial came on. But there was no way to block out the words, delivered in the same hearty tones that were used in commercials for appliances, cosmetics and medications.


"Are you looking for that perfect robot? A-One Androids has the solution. Whether it's help around the house and yard, a companion for your leisure hours, or something more intimate, we can help. Our androids are fully human in appearance and programmed to please you."


Travis let out a cynical laugh. "Programmed to please? What a joke."


"I'm sorry if I'm a disappointment," he replied quietly. "I try my best to please you." Which wasn't entirely true. Not anymore, at least. For the first year he had tried. Tried and tried and tried. His personality traits were intended to develop over time, to align themselves with his owner's. Something must have gone wrong with his programming, however, because as the days passed he only grew further and further apart from the man who had bought him eighteen months' earlier.


"Oh yeah? Then prove it." Travis set aside his wine glass, tipping it so that wine slopped over onto the coffee table. It ran in a thin stream off the edge and dripped, heart's blood red, onto the beige carpet. He got unsteadily to his feet. "On your hands and knees, Nine. Now." Travis fumbled for his zipper.


Without a word, he obeyed. When it was over, he pulled up his shorts and jeans then helped Travis to his feet. He wasn't physically capable of throwing up, but he wished he were. Wished he could throw up all over Travis, ruin his clothes, get some small revenge for the endless indignities heaped on him.


"Fix me," Travis slurred, and trying to act the perfect robot, he did, hiding away the now flaccid cock and zipping Travis's slacks. "Now help me to bed and when you're done, clean up this mess." He made it sound as if he wasn't the one who had created it.


He half-carried Travis up the stairs. He was strong and tireless, requiring neither rest nor sleep, though he could fake sleep if necessary, put himself into a state of suspended animation. Sometimes he wished he could do so permanently.


At the top of the stairs, Travis stopped, resisting his guiding arm. "What the fuck am I doing, fucking a fucking robot?" he slurred, making it sound like an accusation. "Look at you." He grabbed him roughly by the chin with cruelly pinching fingers. He didn't flinch as his head was roughly jerked back and forth. Beneath the pale, flawless, satin-smooth 'skin' was thermoplastic not bone. "You're just a computer gussied up to look pretty." Travis dropped his hand as if his skin was contaminated. "You revolt me."


"Then return me," he said tonelessly. "Like the commercial says, if you're not fully satisfied you can get your money back."


"Are you being sarcastic, Nine?"


"I don't understand," he lied.


"Of course you don't understand," Travis said scornfully. "You're nothing but a machine." Raising his arm, he hit him, a sloppy back-hand that still held considerable force. "You can't even bruise." He sounded angry, as if he wanted to see a bruise blossom on his face. He probably did.


It might be true that he couldn't bruise, but an intricate mesh of sensors embedded in his fake skin mimicked the nerve endings in humans. He could experience pain - pleasure, too, although there had been little enough of that over the past eighteen months. The complex mapping of his physical and emotional structure rendered his reactions real enough to fool anyone who didn't know the truth about him, who couldn't see the serial number imprinted beneath his right hip, AO1609. Tears welled in his eyes in the wake of that carelessly vicious blow. They weren't salt, like human tears, but recycled from liquids he ingested. But they were tears nonetheless.


It was the contemptuous 'You're nothing but a machine' that caused the tears to spill over. It's not my fault, he wanted to say. I didn't ask to be created. He understood that he was a construct of computer chips, wires, metal and plastic, but to himself he felt real - whatever real meant.


"I'm sorry," he whispered, but it was another lie. He was only sorry for the fact that this human had seen the A-One Android infomercial and ordered him. He wasn't supposed to be able to lie, but the extent and limitations of his programming clearly weren't understood even by those who'd made him, because he experienced many emotions that he wasn't supposed to, and few of them happy or even pleasant.


"You should be sorry," Travis said. "Now remove your freaky face from my sight."


Relieved to be ordered to do what he wanted to anyway, he turned to go.


"Where do you think you're going?" Travis demanded irrationally, grabbing the sleeve of his shirt and yanking him back.


"Downstairs. I'm removing my freaky face from your sight like you told me to."


"You can't wait to get away from me. I can see it in your eyes." Travis's grip tightened. "You're fucking defective, that's what you are. I should return you. Maybe I will. Tell them to cut you into scrap and then melt you down."


Terror filled him. "Travis, don't," he begged. He should want it. Should beg Travis to do exactly that and put an end to his miserable existence. But miserable as it was, it was his existence. He existed. He thought, he felt, he lived. He didn't want to be terminated.


"'Travis, don't'," mocked Travis. "I'll do what I fucking well please with you, Nine - I paid enough for that privilege. Now get a move on before the carpet is ruined."


Travis gave him a rough shove; knocked off-balance, he staggered, teetered on the edge of the top stair and then fell with a startled cry. He rolled over and over down the wooden stairs, landing in a heap at the bottom with his left leg twisted beneath him. Pain exploded through him. He felt the ping of snapping of wires and then his leg went dead.


Silence fell. He looked up at Travis. There was no mistaking the avid expression in Travis's eyes. He was pleased - no, delighted - by what had happened.


"My leg is broken," he said. "You have to help me."


Travis laughed drunkenly. "You're a fucking robot. Help yourself." And he walked away without another word.


He stared at the empty spot where Travis had been standing. A new emotion stirred in him. It took him a moment to recognize it for what it was: anger. The force of it shook him the way Travis sometimes did when he was displeased. "I hate you, Travis," he whispered, voicing the thought aloud for the first time. "Hate you."


Channeling the anger, he used it to propel himself into action. He wriggled closer to the wall, and bracing his hands against its smooth painted surface, levered himself upright. Since being born, as he thought of it, he'd never been incapacitated. It was strange and disturbing, but oddly made him feel more real. Humans, after all, were easily broken.


Help yourself. Travis's last command came back to him. Well, why not? Why shouldn't he help himself? He wouldn't put it past Travis to leave his leg broken rather than bring him back to the android store for repair. Travis would probably take a perverse delight in making him fulfill all his usual duties despite his injury.


In which case, it was up to him to get it repaired. But not at A-One Androids. Where he'd been born.


In his mind's eye he saw the infomercial and the smiling, cheerful men and women serving meals, vacuuming and cleaning, climbing into bed and cuddling with their owners. Slaves. The word he increasingly associated with himself and his kind came into his mind. They were no more than slaves, like him. More and more he often wondered if they realized it. If they minded their servitude the way he increasingly did.


In a sense, he thought, Travis was the unsuspecting victim of his own neglect. Travis frequently left him for extended periods of time, days even, and he had no idea nor interest in how his robot spent that time as long as he kept inside the house. But his robot needed a way to pass that time. His mind was a curious, growing thing, not content to sit numbly in front of the holoscreen for hours on end as Travis did.


One day a few months' earlier, roaming aimlessly through the spotless house, he wandered into the study and ended up by Travis's desk, above which hung a shelf holding a dozen books: real books, made with actual paper, such as hadn't been produced in decades. They had belonged to some great-great ancestor of Travis, who made it clear that he wasn't to touch them.


But he was fascinated by them and frequently studied the spines with their colorful lettering, imagining what he might discover inside. On this particular day he finally worked up the nerve to take one down and find out. The title was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. He opened it, and began very carefully to turn the pages, admiring how letters looked printed on a page instead of a holoscreen. Intending just to test his skill by reading a few pages, he experienced for the first time the delight of losing himself in a story, and only emerged from a near trance-like state many hours later, after finishing the entire book.


Having no need for sleep or food, he eagerly moved on to the next book, Great Expectations, and finished it as well. By the time Travis returned, he had read every single book and discovered that countless others could be downloaded from the internet into his memory. He read and read, absorbing the information as a sponge absorbed water. And in the adventures, trials and tribulations of Huck, Pip and others, he found not only escape from his miserable existence, but the first stirrings of rebellion.


The epiphany came when he read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. It was the 300th anniversary of the publication of the story, and the fact that the ethical and moral dilemmas her novel posed in 1818 were even more valid in 2118 had put it squarely in the news, front and center. Curious, he'd downloaded the book and devoured it. At the end, his sympathies lay entirely with the poor monster who, like him, had not asked to be created. They were both victims of human greed and hubris.


And now, in the aftermath of Travis's latest abuse, he'd had enough. Once his leg was fixed, he intended to start walking and keep on walking. Create a new persona and a life for himself somewhere far, far away. Find a job, assimilate. Surely if he were careful, he could disguise the fact that he was an android, and maybe eventually find someone he could trust with the truth.


Grasping his damaged leg at the top of the thigh, he moved it forward then took a step with his good leg. In this manner, he hobbled a few steps. And then a few more. He felt no pain, and although the damaged leg was unstable and he had to move with care, he knew he could manage.


Emboldened, he step-dragged past the living room, past the blood-red stain that would go uncleaned, and down the hall to the front door. He unlocked and opened it, the first time he'd ever done so without Travis's permission, and went out into the still, quiet night.


For a long moment he simply stood there on the front steps, the caged bird freed, the prisoner released from his cell.


Freedom. He never would have guessed, but it had a taste, a smell, a feel. For the first time in weeks a smile curved his lips. But he didn't want to lose his precious new freedom, so he didn't linger but hopped down the four steps and started walking as fast as he could. He knew where he was going: a small robot repair shop in the downtown area called 'Sean's Robotics'. He'd noticed it a couple months ago when Travis unexpectedly took him on an outing. It was only because he needed his help lifting a heavy object into the back of his hovercraft, but it had been a memorable day, nevertheless.


It was a good four miles to the repair shop, but distances meant nothing to one who couldn't feel tiredness even with a broken leg to drag along.


At this late hour few hovercraft were around, but whenever he heard the distinctive hum that signaled one approaching, he quickly retreated into the shadows. Based on past experience, Travis wouldn't stir until well into the morning, and by then he intended to be long gone. He couldn't risk being noticed, however. He had no identification to try and pass himself off as human, and androids were not legally allowed to roam unattended. As if we're criminals, he thought sadly. And like a criminal, he'd be taken into custody and then returned to Travis, who would probably take steps to ensure that he never escaped again. I won't let that happen.


When he got to the downtown area, the stores were shut up tight. He avoided the main street and approached from the rear, carefully scanning the wide parking area behind the repair shop for signs of life. All he saw were beige colored moths flinging themselves at the overhead lights and a solitary squeaking rat nosing around an overfull dumpster. A hovercraft was tethered behind a store two doors down from the one he sought; through its windows pale yellow light shone and he could hear voices talking, but it was not the particular building he needed to break into. The repair shop was completely dark.


But the area was well-lit, so he would need to move fast. Hoping his luck would hold, he crossed to the shop's rear entrance, at the top of three cement stairs. The gunmetal gray door was secured by a heavy bolt, but that presented little challenge for him. He was programmed not to use his strength except in the service of his owner, but he found it easy to overcome that imperative and use it for himself. Grasping the handle, he hit the door with his shoulder hard enough to shear the bolt and pop the lock.


He angled his bad leg through the now-open door, quickly closed it behind him, and then slumped against it in relief. He'd made it inside. But that was the easy part. He still had to fix his leg, and he had no idea how he would manage it. His programming didn't include self-repair of this magnitude - that was the responsibility of A-One Androids. But again he took comfort in the knowledge that a human being wouldn't fare any better. That's what doctors were for, after all.


He left the lights off; he could see perfectly well without them, and the room's two small windows had no covering. Advancing further inside, he looked around him. The first thing that caught his eye was an open cardboard box on the floor that had an arm protruding from the top. More arms and several legs stood like bizarre sculptures on shelves that lined the work space. An old metal knee hole desk was covered with multimeters, soldering irons, circuit boards, wires - and hands, feet, necks and knees.


The stark reality of Travis's cruel words, You're nothing more than a fucking machine, hit him as he confronted the haphazard jumble of body parts and tools. But immediately his mind rejected that reality. Whatever his body was made from, he thought, and felt, and lived.


And if he wanted to go on living, he had to get himself fixed, and fast. On the floor beside the desk was a tool box. He had no idea if it had what he needed, but it was a place to start, anyway. Quickly he removed his sneakers, unbuckled his brown leather belt and unzipped his jeans. He sat down next to the box and wriggled out of his jeans. Then he contemplated his leg, covered in smooth, pale skin, with a dusting of light brown hair.


The damage wasn't obvious from the outside. His leg had bent at mid-thigh, at the spot where two pieces joined. When he'd straightened it, the pieces came back together, giving the limb just enough strength for him to hobble along on it, despite the snapped wires inside. Now, though, he had to separate the pieces, which meant cutting through the skin at the joint. If the repairs were being done at A-One Androids, they'd power him down first, using the discreetly placed port behind his left ear. He'd sleep through the entire process like an anesthetized patient. But the idea of being powered down terrified him. He couldn't wake unless the 'doctors' chose to power him up again, and what if they didn't? Travis's threat was still too present in his mind. An owner had the right to 'decommission his purchase', which was simply a fancy way of saying that his memory would be wiped clean and his parts reused to create another android. Far preferable to remain conscious throughout the repair, even if he bungled the job.


Nevertheless, as he rummaged through the tool box and removed a shiny stainless steel knife, he felt oddly apprehensive as if, when he pressed the sharp blade into his skin, blood would well up. Fool, he scolded himself. That's carrying things too far. You're a robot. Say it.


"I'm a robot," he murmured aloud, and after tracing the joint with his forefinger, he set the knife edge to the seam and cut. It easily pierced his skin, as though cutting through butter. Following the seam carefully, he made an incision all the way round. Then he set the knife aside, grasped his leg below the cut and pulled. After a moment's resistance, the joint gave way and a writhing Medusa's nest of yellow, red and blue wires sprang out from either end.


He set the detached portion of his leg to the side and contemplated the damage. It was far worse than he imagined. How he was ever going to repair it, he had no idea. But he had to try. He sat back, bracing his shoulders against the wall, and raised his thigh. The first step was clear: he had to separate the snarled wires into individual strands. Tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth, he attacked the tangled mess with impatient fingers. When he'd freed two wires of the same color, he held them up. The frayed ends showed clearly where they'd snapped and he wondered helplessly what he should do next.


So focused was he that he didn't notice the back door open or a hand reach for the light switch.


"Well, well, what do we have here?" A voice said as the overhead light came on.


His head shot up and he froze. Silhouetted in the doorway was a man, hips canted, forearm propped against the door frame. There were dark smudges on his cheeks and around his hips hung a leather tool belt. It could only be Sean, the store owner.


"How long have you been standing there?" he asked.


"Long enough to know you know nothing about robot mechanics." Sean lowered his arm. "May I?" he asked, and striding swiftly forward, knelt beside him.


Involuntarily he shrank back, fear seizing him. He knew few humans besides Travis, and trusted none of them.


Sean said softly, "It's all right. I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to take a look at your leg."


He forced himself to relax, but he felt not a whit more trustful. It was difficult not to snatch at his leg when Sean picked it up. The man let out a low whistle. "You sure did a number on this. What happened?"


It didn't occur to him to use his new-found skill at lying. "My owner pushed me and I fell down the stairs," he said.


"Jesus." It was all Sean said, but his lips compressed as if he was holding back more words. "Were you really going to try and fix this yourself?" he asked, cocking an eyebrow in surprise.


"Yes. Travis told me to, and I won't go back to that place - not that he'd take me there anyway."


"That place? You mean A-One Androids?"


"It's where I came from."


"It's where most androids around here come from." Sean looked up from contemplation of the leg he held. "I don't blame you for not wanting to go back."


"You don't?" He had trouble processing this.


"Nope." He added, "And you don't have to. I can fix your leg."


He was silent, considering. Then he said slowly, "I broke into your shop. Why would you help me instead of calling the police?"


"Because calling the police would accomplish nothing except to put you back with a guy who shoved you down some stairs and left you to fend for yourself when you got hurt."


All of which was true. But he said, "I can't pay you anything."


"You don't have to pay me," replied Sean gently.


"Are you a - a nice human?" he ventured, watching him. It seemed almost an impossibility.


"I hope so. I try to be." He looked at him almost with an expression of pity. "Have you really never met a nice human before?"


He shook his head. "But Travis didn't like me to meet other people. I only met a few before you. His - friends." Who got roaring drunk with Travis and then took turns having sex with him, or rather forcing it on him.


"I know it might be difficult to believe, but there actually are nice humans in the world-" He stopped. "I'm sorry - I haven't asked your name. I'm Sean Astin, but you've obviously already figured out that I'm the proprietor of this exceedingly messy and cluttered establishment."


He wanted to tell Sean Astin that he preferred his 'exceedingly messy and cluttered establishment' to the clinical, antiseptic atmosphere of the room at A-One Androids where he'd been 'born', but he felt too awkward and uncertain. So he only addressed the question of his name.


"Travis calls me Nine, from my serial number." Among other things, all of them calculated to hurt and demean, rub his nose in the fact that he wasn't human.


Sean's eyebrows lifted. "Not very imaginative at choosing names, is he, good ol' Travis. Well, screw what he calls you. I want to know what you call yourself."


"Why do you think I have a name for myself?" he asked, hedging. It was his most closely guarded secret. He wasn't supposed to name himself, but only respond to whatever name his owner gave him.


"Let's just say I have a hunch. But you don't have to tell me if you don't want to."


"No, I'll tell you." Sean was nice and he owed him an answer for helping him and not asking for anything in return. Shyly he said, "I call myself Elijah."


Sean smiled. His smile was as nice as he was, deepening lines at the corners of his eyes and filling Elijah with a sense of warmth and hope. "Not Isaac Asimov's Elijah?"


"Yes, but how did you guess?"


The amazement he felt was so evident in his voice that Sean laughed softly. "I'm a big fan of his Robot books. Elijah Baley is one of my favorite characters. But shouldn't you be calling yourself Daneel?"


Elijah hung his head. "It was wrong of me to take a human name."


"Hey, I was only teasing you," Sean said. "You have a right to take any name you like."


"Teasing?" He knew the word, but he'd never experienced it before. Travis never teased, he only mocked and abused.


"Yeah, teasing. Making fun, but in a nice way. If you hang around with me, you'll have to get used to it, Elijah. I like to tease."


"Am I going to hang around with you?" Suddenly, Elijah could think of nothing he would like more. Hearing his name, his own name, on Sean's lips made him feel real. Almost human.


"If you want this leg fixed, you'll have to hang around with me for the rest of the night. Beyond that, let's wait and see, okay?"


"The rest of the night?" Elijah abruptly remembered why he was in Sean's workshop. Dismay filled him. "But I need to get away before Travis wakes up and discovers I'm gone." A rising panic had him struggling to stand one legged. "I'm sorry, but I can't stay. Just reattach the leg and I'll manage."


"Whoa, relax and sit down, Elijah," Sean said, setting a gentle hand on Elijah's shoulder. He wasn't strong enough to restrain Elijah, but oddly, at his touch, Elijah immediately calmed. "I promise you, I won't let Travis find you. Will you trust me?"


Elijah bit his lip. What choice did he have? He wouldn't get far on a broken leg. He had to place his trust in Sean. "All right."


And then Sean said something so incredible, so unprecedented that Elijah felt the hot sting of tears in his eyes. He said, "Thank you."


"No one's ever said thank you to me for anything," Elijah whispered.


The hand on his shoulder tightened. "It sounds like a lot of things that should have been said to you haven't been, Elijah. Perhaps now that you've left Travis, that will start to change." Sean removed his hand and sat back. "But first we have to fix your leg. Would you like me to power you down while I do?"


"No!" The fearful exclamation escaped him before he could stop it. He bit his lip again. Tried to quell the panic the question roused inside him. "No," he repeated with forced calm. "I'll stay awake."


"All right," Sean said agreeably. "Awake it is. Let's get you up on the table. It'll be easier to work on you there." Sean slid an arm around Elijah; it was strong and warm and made him feel secure rather than threatened. "On three: one, two, three."


Elijah pushed off with his good leg and Sean helped him hop over to the table and up on his butt on the painted metal top. Sean took the still-connected part of Elijah's left leg between his hands. The sensors embedded in his skin weren't damaged here. He could feel the warm press of Sean's fingers into his flesh, and they roused unexpected, enjoyable tingles of sensation where they touched him. This was what he should have felt when Travis touched him, pleasure not pain.


Elijah looked down at the top of Sean's burnished gold head as he examined the snapped, frayed wires and the circuit board to which they were connected. He wondered at his reaction to being touched by this near-stranger. Was this how it was with humans? That one person's touch could make your skin crawl, while another's could make you wish that the touching would never stop? The books he read, the commercials and shows he watched, seemed to say that it was, but the A-One Android infomercials showed willing robots in happy homes. And that was a lie. So what was truth? Whom could he really trust?


Just then Sean looked up, and Elijah was caught and held by his eyes, a clear green flecked with amber. Travis's eyes were brown and they had no depth to them. Not so Sean's eyes that appeared depthless as the ocean. He smiled and Elijah could have sworn that his heart skipped a beat, though it was programmed only to beat at one steady rhythm.


"Good news," Sean said. "This circuit board isn't damaged, so I only have to replace the other one. The wires are totally shot, but that's no biggie. I should have you good to go in a couple of hours."


"Thank you, Sean," Elijah said humbly. "I don't understand why you're being so nice to me."


"Maybe to prove to you that not every human is an abusive pile of excrement like Travis." Sean straightened and started moving around the workshop, gathering up the things he needed to do the repair. "Why don't you tell me more about him," he suggested.


Elijah didn't particularly want to discuss Travis. He'd had more than enough of him. But he was programmed to be observant in order to facilitate learning new expressions, gestures and emotions. And what he was observing now was that Sean's curiosity about Travis wasn't idle, but had some larger purpose.


What that purpose was, Elijah had no idea, but he suspected it wasn't in aid of returning him to his owner, so he said, "What do you want to know?"


"For starters, how long you've been with him."


"Eighteen months," Elijah replied. "He ordered me from A-One Androids."


"So you were made new for him? You weren't with any previous owners?" Sean sounded surprised.


"No, just Travis." Elijah was aware that some androids passed from owner to owner. The infomercials made it clear that discounted 'pre-owned' androids were available for those who couldn't afford a brand new model. What must that be like, he wondered again, as he had many times, being passed from human to human when your usefulness was over or you outlived your current owner?


As Sean worked, he questioned Elijah, slowly but surely drawing from him every ugly, sordid detail of his life with Travis. But Elijah told him, too, about such small pleasures as there were: reading, listening to music, cooking. Sean didn't react overtly to any of Elijah's answers, no matter how awful, only nodded and kept on with his methodical replacement of the broken wires, soldering the new ones to the circuit board. And yet Elijah sensed that beneath the surface some powerful emotions were churning.


"Can I ask you a question?" Elijah said when Sean appeared to have no more questions to ask and silence fell.


"Sure," Sean replied.


"What's that stuff on your face? It smells funny." Elijah wrinkled his nose.


"Not the question I was expecting, I admit," Sean laughed as if genuinely amused. He touched his cheek with a forefinger, drew it away. The pad was now decorated with a dark smudge. "It's motor oil. Sorry - I didn't realize I'd gotten it on me."


"Motor oil... what is that for?" As far as he knew, there was no oil inside an android.


"It's for my car."


"Car? Do you mean an au-to-mo-bile?" Elijah carefully enunciated the word, which he had only encountered in books. He knew that they were once used for transportation, before hovercrafts replaced them, but he'd never actually seen one.


"It's pronounced automobile," Sean said, smiling. "And that's exactly what I mean. It's just an old junker I'm putting together from parts I've found at scrapyards. I tinker with it in my spare time. As a matter of fact, it's the reason I came by the shop tonight. I needed a tool that I didn't have at home."


"Oh, I'd love to see your automobile," Elijah exclaimed eagerly, and was immediately horrified by his presumption. "I- I'm sorry," he faltered. "I shouldn't have said that."


"Why not?" Sean replied.


"Because I'm a robot. It's not my place to ask for things, only to obey orders."


Sean regarded him thoughtfully. "Tell me something, Elijah, and I want you to be truthful. Is that what you honestly believe, that's it not your place to ask for things?"


Elijah didn't answer right away. Trust. It kept coming back to that word and all it implied. I want to trust him, he realized. Finally he said, slowly, "I'm not human, Sean. I'll never know what it means to be human. But... I'm me. I'm not a - a thing without thoughts or feelings of my own."


"No, you're not," Sean agreed. He hesitated and then, as if coming to a decision, he said, "Maybe it's time I told you a little about myself, Elijah, so you'll understand where I'm coming from and why you can trust me."


Elijah was genuinely curious, because Sean was nothing like the white-lab-coated men and women at A-One Androids, who had done his annual maintenance six months earlier. They hadn't asked if he minded being powered down. Hadn't asked him anything, in fact. Only Travis had been consulted, his contribution being that everything was great, only could they make Elijah's hair a brighter blue. Not that Elijah would have dared to voice an opinion or complaint even if asked, not after Travis made it plain that if he did, he would pay dearly. But Sean... he seemed to believe that Elijah's opinions mattered. He treated him like he would a real human.


Sean said, "Ever since I was a little kid, I've liked to take things apart and put them back together again. We never had to get someone in to fix stuff at my house, because I always did it. It's a knack I have. So when the time came to choose a career, robotics repair was a natural fit. I went to school, of course, to get my certification, although there wasn't much they could teach me by that point."


"My very first job out of school was with A-One Androids. I lasted exactly three months. The things I saw there..." His hands stilled; he drew a deep breath. "There was one android in particular. Her name was Rose. She was brought in for repair work and it was clear that the damage - torn skin, a broken jaw - had been inflicted by her owner. We were instructed never to engage the merchandise, as they called it, in conversation, just shut them down and fix them. But I could see in her eyes that she was in pain - not just physical, but mental. I brought it up to my supervisor, said I was positive that she was being abused." He sighed. "I was wasting my breath. All I got in response was a reminder that my job was to repair robots, nothing more. That I was seeing things that weren't there because androids didn't feel mental pain. And I got a warning that if I stuck my nose where it wasn't wanted again, I'd be fired." He gave another short, humorless laugh. "I handed them my notice then and there. Opened my own shop."


"What happened to Rose?" Elijah asked. "Do you know?"


Sean pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezed his eyes tight shut as if holding back tears. "I wanted to save her, but by the time I managed to set something up, it was too late. She killed herself, Elijah." He opened his eyes and tears sparkled in them. "The company hushed it up, said it was an accident. But I knew it wasn't."


"I hate them," Elijah burst out, his heart aching for Rose, even more for Sean, who had tried to help her. "What they're doing to us, what they did to Rose - it's wrong, Sean. We aren't slaves."


"It is wrong, very, very wrong," Sean softly agreed. And then he said, "Tell me, Elijah, in your reading, did you ever come across anything about a movement called the Underground Railroad?"


Elijah immediately pulled the words from his memory. "The Underground Railroad was a network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape to the North and Canada during the nineteenth century," he recited.


"That's right. But what you might not know is that the Underground Railroad still exists. Only now it's not African slaves who are being freed from captivity, but androids, like you. This shop isn't only a place that robots are repaired, Elijah. It's also a station on the Underground Railroad. There are others besides me - humans and androids both - who are working to save robots from servitude" Sean set down the soldering iron and took Elijah's hands in his. "Breaking in here might turn out to be the smartest thing you've ever done, because I can help you escape to someplace safe, someplace you'll be protected. Someplace you'll be free. I promised you that I wouldn't let Travis get you back, and I meant it."


"Really?" Hope filled Elijah at Sean's words. A place where he could be free? Was it possible?


"Really. We have a compound in a secluded location where we give androids the tools they need to become human enough to integrate and lead independent lives. We'll remove your serial number and give you a new identity, complete with official documentation. You'll get education and training, too, so you can find a good job. And we have a network of volunteers, human and android, who will be there for you when you leave, so you'll never be without friends or support."


Tears prickled Elijah's eyes. "Then there are others who feel like I do? I thought I was alone."


"You'd be amazed at the number of androids who are now living as humans. You're definitely not alone. Ultimately the goal is for androids to have the same rights as humans. To vote, marry, own property, go to school, hold elected office. But that's a battle still being waged. For now this is the best we can do, but we will never give up the fight - for Rose, for you, for all the androids who are treated as slaves." Sean spoke passionately, his face aflame with determination. Then the flame died. He smiled a rueful smile and added, "Sorry to climb on my soapbox, Elijah. Right now all that isn't important; getting you to safety is. But the decision lies with you. Do you want me to arrange for you to go to the compound?"


Elijah was incapable of speech. He could only nod.


"Okay, I can make the arrangements now and have you out of here before Travis even realizes you're gone." Sean smiled reassuringly at him.


A tear spilled over and ran down his cheek. "I've wanted to get away from him for so long," Elijah whispered. "I never imagined it would really happen."


Sean thumbed the tear away. "Don't cry," he said tenderly. "Everything's going to be all right now."


And Elijah believed him. He listened as Sean made a call on his com watch to someone named Billy. "Billy, I have a package for you to pick up at the shop in an hour," was all he said before ending the call.


"Billy will take you to the next station, Elijah," Sean told him. "There are two more stops after that, and then you're there. We break up the journey to make it harder for anyone to track us and discover the location of the compound. But I promise that you'll be safe and well-guarded the entire way, okay?"


"Okay," Elijah replied.


But an hour seemed like forever with the looming threat of Travis hanging over his head. What if he woke early? What if someone had seen Elijah and could direct Travis to Sean's shop? But he had to keep believing in Sean, trusting him. So he forced himself to remain patient and calm while Sean returned to the interrupted work of fixing Elijah's broken leg.


He replaced the circuit board in the detached leg and one by one, painstaking as a surgeon, connected the plethora of multi-colored wires already soldered on the other end. As Sean fixed the last wire in place, Elijah felt a prickling sensation in his skin and tiny blue LED lights in the circuit boards began to blink.


"Looks like we've got a good connection," Sean said with satisfaction. "But before I repair your skin, I want you to test it out." He fitted the detached leg piece to Elijah's thigh and snapped it into place. "How does that feel?" he asked.


Elijah wiggled his toes and smiled with relief. "Good."


"Try moving the leg now."


Obediently Elijah did several leg lifts, raising and lowering it smoothly. "It feels perfect, Sean," he said.


"Let's see you walk around the room a few times. We don't want to celebrate too soon."


Elijah slid off the table and started walking around the small, cluttered space. Sean had him bounce up and down, jog in place, crouch and straighten. He did every movement effortlessly. The leg was functioning perfectly again and relief flooded through him - relief and gratitude to Sean, who had fixed more than his leg this night. He had fixed Elijah's life, made him feel almost human.


"Looks great," Sean said. "Hop back up on the table and I'll seal the skin."


Sean was equally meticulous in this repairing. When he was done Elijah's skin was flawless and smooth once more with no sign left of the knife cut. Sean had barely finished when a glow of yellow light showed through the windows.


"That'll be Billy," Sean said, straightening. "You better get dressed."


As Elijah pulled on his discarded jeans and his sneakers, it hit him that after he left with Billy, he might never see Sean again. A shaft of pain, worse than any Travis had caused, lanced through him at the thought. Perhaps he'd only known Sean for a few hours, but it didn't seem to matter. In him, Elijah had found shelter and caring, and even laughter and teasing. The previous barren eighteen months of his existence paled next to the short time he'd spent with Sean, that by comparison was rich beyond measure.


A sequence of soft knocks, clearly a code, came at the door. Sean opened it and let in a slight man with thinning sandy hair and a sharp-nosed face. "Hey, Billy."


"Hey, Sean." Pale green eyes went straight to Elijah. "This the package?"


"Uh-huh. His name is Elijah. Elijah, this is Billy Boyd. He'll be taking you to the next station."


To Elijah's shock and surprise, Billy held out his hand to him. "Nice to meet you, Elijah."


Awkwardly, for he'd never shaken hands with anyone before, Elijah shook Billy's proffered hand. "It's nice to meet you, too," he said shyly. "I'm so grateful to you for what you're doing."


"Trust me, the pleasure is all mine. Screwing those A-One Android fuckers over is my favorite pastime. You ready to roll?" he said.


Sudden panic seized Elijah. Out there was a frightening, unknown future. In here was safety, security - and Sean.


"Give us a minute alone, will you?" Sean asked, clearly sensing Elijah's panic.


"Sure thing. I'll be outside in the 'craft."


When the door closed behind Billy, Sean took Elijah's hands once again in a comforting clasp. "It's going to be okay, Elijah. I'm sure it seems scary right now, but once you get to the compound and meet everyone, see how genuinely nice they are, it'll be different. You'll be among friends. So try not to worry, okay?"


Elijah's fingers were curled tightly around Sean's, clinging to them. "I'll try," he promised. Then he voiced the question that he probably shouldn't, but couldn't keep from asking: "Will I ever see you again?"


"Do you want to see me again?" Sean answered his question with a question.


"Yes, more than anything," Elijah replied fervently.


"If you still feel that way in a few months, then we'll see each other." He smiled. "Hang around together."


"I'd like that," Elijah said shyly.


But Sean grew serious. "Elijah, I know you feel grateful to me right now. But gratitude can easily be confused with other emotions. You may end up changing your mind about seeing me, and that's okay." He smoothed a tumbled lock of hair off Elijah's forehead and Elijah leaned into his touch. "The only thing that matters is that you're happy."


"I'm not going to change my mind," Elijah said, "because it's not just gratitude I feel." Bravely, he turned the question back on Sean. "Do you want to see me again?"


"Hell yeah." Sean leaned in and oh-so-very-gently kissed Elijah on the lips. "I've never had a more beautiful surprise in my life than when I opened the door to my shop and saw you sitting on the floor. And besides," he added in a teasing voice, "you still have to see my au-to-mo-bile."


"It's pronounced automobile," Elijah corrected, a smile tugging at lips wearing the soft imprint of Sean's kiss.


"Imp," Sean said, clearly delighted by Elijah's teasing in return. He touched Elijah on the tip of the nose and added, "You're a very quick study. You'll have this teasing thing down in no time. Now go on with Billy, before I give into temptation and beg you not to go."


Elijah heard the strain in Sean's voice, underlying the lightness. He really didn't want Elijah to leave. And somehow, knowing that made it easier for Elijah to go, bolstered by the knowledge that Sean wanted to see him again just as badly as he wanted to see Sean.


With a mixture of trepidation and excitement, Elijah went outside, where Billy was waiting in the hovercraft. He climbed into the passenger seat and strapped himself in. All the while, he kept his gaze fixed on Sean, who stood in the doorway with his forearm braced against the frame, just as he had when Elijah first set eyes on him. Elijah imprinted the image in his memory for safekeeping, knowing that he would call on it often in the months to come.


"Ready, Elijah?" Billy asked.


Elijah nodded, and the hovercraft circled and shot away. Elijah craned his neck to look behind him. Sean had a hand lifted in farewell. Elijah waved back and kept on waving, until the workshop was swallowed by darkness and Sean vanished from sight.


~*~


Sean watched the hovercraft's lights dwindle and disappear. He sighed. Elijah was gone. It was funny, he thought. Over the years he'd helped dozens of androids along the Underground Railroad to freedom. Never before had it been this hard to see one go. Elijah was extraordinary, in ways he didn't even realize. It wasn't his looks, though those were breathtaking. But for an android who had only existed for eighteen months to think and react and feel as Elijah did was unprecedented in Sean's experience. What would that mean for his future? For their future?


He didn't know, but he couldn't wait to find out. First, though, there was an automobile to finish building. He had to have it ready for Elijah's return.


~end~



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