An eight-year-old is determined to give a future to a group of scrapped robots.
* * *
22 February 1993
The little curly-haired, chubby girl had been waiting in front of the entrance arch of the town hall for quite some time. Nobody had paid must – if any – attention to her. If anybody had stopped by to look at her, it had been because of her curly, rebel hair that made her head look like the crown of an oak tree.
When someone finally acknowledged her presence, it had been almost three hours.
“What are you doing here, little one?” someone inquired. The little girl lifted her head to look at the owner of that voice, a brunette in her forties with a kind face.
“I wanna talk to the Mayor,” announced the girl, looking at the woman with imploring eyes. The woman smiled and uncovered her teeth, the kind of smile that the little girl knew to be one of embarrassment and not genuine. The woman’s eyes blinked and then rolled as she sighed. “The Mayor is busy, sweetheart.”
“But it’s important!”
“Is it?” She crossed her arms. “And what is it that you wanted to tell him?”
The little girl frowned and then looked away. “It’s a secret.”
“Well, I’m afraid I can’t really help you, then. But I can take you home. Where do you live, dear? What’s your name?”
The little girl stiffened and sucked in her belly to make her shoulders appear broader and more authoritarian. “No need to take me home. I live nearby.” She made a step back and then she ran away from the short gallery of the town hall. The woman didn’t call her nor did she follow her. However, as she walked back home, the child felt that someone was watching her. When she lifted her chin, she thought she saw the Mayor Cesari bringing himself to the balcony of the town hall, but she couldn’t be sure about it.
After walking another handful of meters, though, she realized that, Mayor or not, that person was really looking at her.
* * *
She managed to escape the remnants of the previous day’s Carnival that soiled the street and came back home while her parents were still napping. Quietly, she cleaned her shoes and closed the door behind her. After locking it again, she went to the kitchen table and started doing her homework. When her father stepped into the kitchen to get himself a glass of water, she pretended to be very concentrated on her grammar exercises.
“Do you want some water?” her father asked in a gentle tone. She shook her head. “I have to finish this,” she mumbled, her eyes fixed on the textbook. But as she lifted them and looked at the fresh, inviting water from the bottle, she added an “Alright, maybe just one glass.”
Her father smiled and took a glass for her from the sideboard, that he immediately filled with tap water. The child swallowed it as if she hadn’t had any liquids for hours – and it was true.
“Don’t forget to drink water while you do homework,” her father said, giving her a benevolent flick on her cheek before he returned to his room.
The little girl smiled. She wished she could tell her dad the truth, but she knew he wouldn’t have understood. Nobody ever seemed to understand her love for mechanical creatures.
* * *
23 February 1993
The little girl went home immediately after school, accompanied by her parents, but soon after lunch she asked them if she could spend the afternoon with grandma Maurizia. They agreed and her grandmother, as always, liked to have her little granddaughter around.
They watched a TV show together, talked about the upcoming Mardi Gras floats and then she told her grandmother she would do her homework while she napped. Diligently, she dove herself in textbooks at exactly 3:00 PM. In the background of her mind, however, she eagerly waited for 3:30 PM, because that was when Aquila would have come to knock at her grandma’s door. Well, so to speak, because she had asked him to not knock or ring the doorbell, as her grandma would have woken up and she would have been kept a close eye on her every afternoon after that, making it impossible for her to see her friend again.
At 3:27 she went to the door and inspected the condo’s corridor from the peephole. She had to force herself to stay focused and not let anything distract her for three minutes or longer, until she could see Aquila appear from the internal entrance door of the condo.
Aquila was on time. She recognized the border of one of his wings when the entrance door opened, then the remainder of his body. She heard his robotic footsteps, and she noticed he tried to deaden as much as possible by laying his feet on the floor as gently as he could.
The little girl opened her grandma’s main door slowly to avoid noise, then she went out and waved to Aquila as she walked toward him. Aquila returned her greeting and took her in his arms when she ran to him for a hug.
“Aquila, are you okay?” She asked that question with a soft concerned tone, almost in a whisper, holding him tightly.
“I’m good, Luisa,” he said, rubbing her back. “Do you have any news?”
Luisa sighed. “I don’t, alas… he doesn’t let me in.”
Aquila looked at her and smiled. “Don’t worry. If it didn’t work this time, we can always try again later.”
Luisa sniffled and wiped her nose in the crook of her arm and hinted at a smile. “Thank you,” she said, leaning forward to rest her head on Aquila’s chest.
The robot was taken by so much tenderness that he surrounded the child with both of his arms and rocked her gently. “You’re doing so much for us,” he told her. “And you are so young still. Really, don’t worry. Things will look up eventually.”
Luisa nodded but she didn’t move from where she was, curled against Aquila as if he was another father to her. “I’m happy to help,” she added, almost chirping.
That baby-like behavior made Aquila chuckle. “Do you think you can leave now?”
Luisa lifted her head and turned to look at her grandma’s door. “Well, grandma will nap another two hours, I think. If you can bring me back in time…”
“We’ll do it quickly if we use my wings.”
Luisa looked alarmed. “But you know my fear of heights! And what if the police sees you?”
“You know I hold you firmly. You can’t fall. And we have half an hour before they can see me.”
His warm smile reassured Luisa enough that she smiled in return and nodded. “I’ll use the toilet first and then grab my things and then we can go.”
Aquila chuckled. “And then make it fast, little lady!”
Luisa showed him a big grin. She liked it when Aquila called her “little lady.” She did everything fast so she could see her robot friends again after a good week.
* * *
She was frightened and everything within her screamed to go back down on the ground, but somehow she managed to avoid a crisis by hugging Aquila’s neck into a tight hold when he flew her over the buildings of Genzano di Roma, high enough that people looking up would maybe recognize him but wouldn’t notice the child in his arms, so they wouldn’t call the police.
Aquila and his companions had found refuge in a far corner of the so-called “artisanal zone”, an area with warehouses and artisan workshops. Aquila landed in the middle of an open space, holding Luisa a little longer to rub her back so she would stop shaking before he helped her down.
Three robots left the shacks they built with means of luck to approach them. One of the robots was waving. Now down from Aquila’s embrace, with feet on the ground, Luisa turned to recognize Speeder. Unlike Aquila, Speeder resembled a race car. Actually, he transformed into one, although not in scale. Red-armored and tall, he intrigued Luisa a lot because he reminded her of her toy robots. The other robot was Firebot Allen, the tall red and white firefighter, doctor with a reassuring attitude, and surprisingly, a last name. He was Luisa’s favorite after Aquila. Sprinter though… Luisa didn’t know much about him yet because he was always so quiet, but his physical strength and bulky green frame made her think he could have been a bodyguard.
“Hey, Speed. Any news?” Aquila asked. Luisa looked up to her favorite among the group, the one who was such a kind friend to her. Aquila, whose name really meant “eagle,” was beautiful to her eyes with his shiny silver helmet, his eagle-head chest shape, and his big wide wings, that she was sure nobody would believe were made of silicon and metal when he was flying high in the sky, caressing the air softly like real feathers. She was fascinated by her robot friend.
Speeder pointed his thumb to the warehouses behind the shacks. “Those good guys got us food and beverages while you were away. But that’s small news compared to something else: they found someone, a robot like us. A female model.”
While Luisa’s eyes widened and a big grin appeared on her face, Aquila blinked in surprise. “Female, you say? That’s rare. And where is she?”
“Well, not here,” said Firebot, chiming in. “One of the guys took her home to clean her up. He found her in Velletri1 near the old mine of pozzolana in Lazzaria after getting his car repaired.”
“And he’s taking her to our place tomorrow,” said Sprinter, crossing his arms. “Things are getting interesting around here, for sure.”
“Doesn’t look like a good idea to me,” said Aquila, shaking his head slowly while caressing Luisa’s. “She’d better stay with the one who found her. That’s her home now.”
“That’s not the human’s intention,” Speeder said with a grimace, crossing his arms, too.
“She’s injured anyway,” Firebot added. “And I’m the only one who can repair her.”
Luisa had been listening quietly to the four robots talking, but she really couldn’t hold her feelings back anymore. She was visibly excited. “A new robot is joining that group and she’s a girl? How cool is that? I can’t wait to meet her!”
“You will, Lu,” Firebot said, with a warm smile. “As soon as she feels better. We need to cure her first.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Luisa, looking down at her feet. “I jumped ahead, sorry.”
Firebot laughed. “Hey, chill up. You did nothing wrong.”
“Luisa, why don’t you tell our friends the news?” Aquila encouraged her gently. “You were at the town hall today.”
“Really?” Speeder was the one being excited now. “And what did the Mayor say?”
The child sighed and bit her lower lip. “Nothing, actually. I didn’t get to meet him. But I tried, I swear I tried!”
“None of us are mad at you for how things went,” Aquila reassured her. “It’s not your fault.”
“Yeah, just keep trying,” said Sprinter, ruffling her curly hair. “He’s going to meet you soon, you’ll see.”
“But let’s not pressure her,” Firebot said, placing a hand on Sprinter’s shoulder. “She’s only a child and she’s already doing so much for us.”
“But I want to do more,” Luisa said, pouting.
“Maybe you could help me disinfect my tools,” said Firebot, kneeling down to her level. “Only the safest ones, though. I wouldn’t want you injured.”
That worked like magic to make Luisa smile again. “Sure, why not?”
“But not too long, Lu,” Aquila said. “I have to take you back before one hour if we want to keep a low profile.”
Luisa turned her head to look at him with a frown and a pout. “Ooo-kay.”
* * *
Speeder was enjoying a fruit juice with Sprinter when Aquila rose from the chair where he had been sitting for a long time, deep in thought.
“We still have pineapple juice if you change your mind,” said Speeder, seeing his winged friend approach on slow steps.
Aquila smiled. “I’ll accept some. Only half a glass.”
The red robot filled a plastic glass and handed it out to him. Aquila took it and drank it quickly in a single sip.
“What’s on your mind?”
Aquila shrugged. “Existential issues. And I’m worried about Luisa. She’s stressing too much over seeing the Mayor.”
“She’s trying to help us, that’s commendable of a human,” Sprinter said, rolling the yo-yo he hardly separated from since he was found by Aquila and Firebot five months earlier. His old owner’s. Aquila’s eyes fixated on the yo-yo, losing in thought for a good few seconds.
“I just don’t want her to stop being a happy child because of us, that’s all.”
Speeder and Sprinter could only agree with him, but they reminded him that that was true of him even; he should relax a little more.
“You know, it works for us ‘bots just like it works for humans. Relax! I remember my owner – he was too stressed by too many things and in the end he lost his mind and got rid of me, too. You don’t want to end up like him.”
Speeder sighed heavily and hit his palms over his knees. “Could we avoid bringing up owners and creators, please? I still have nightmares over the abuses from my father.”
“Sorry, Speed,” said Aquila, approaching his friend and gently patting his shoulder, “Sprinter was just trying to motivate me.”
“Yeah, I know.” Speeder half smiled and sighed again. “Not your fault or Sprinter’s. I only wish my trauma didn’t make me see triggers everywhere. And I still strongly refuse to change form, too.”
“Give it time, and tell Firebot about your nightmares. Maybe he can help.”
“Hey, Firebot is a good doctor, but he’s no therapist.”
“He’s still the only option we have for a therapist. Unless we manage to convince a human one to give you some free counseling.”
Speeder burst into a loud laughter. “Free counseling to a robot? That’s fairy tale, my friend. But I think I’ll tell Firebot.”
* * *
Luisa was happily polishing a set of wrenches for Firebot when Aquila came to the shack to remind her it was time to go. She pouted and put her fists on her hips.
“Sorry, little lady.” Aquila was sincerely sad to have to take her back home, but there was no other choice.
“I know…” Luisa looked up to Firebot and opened her arms. The tall red and white robot smiled and pulled her into a hug.
“You did a good job, Lu. The next time I’ll have more for you to clean.”
“Okay, Fire! I will be happy to help.”
“Time to go,” Aquila reminded her, and Luisa rose on the tip of her toes to kiss Firebot’s cheek. Then she left the shack and went to hug Speeder and Sprinter, too, and say goodbye.
* * *
3 March 1993
Aquila collected the wood from the trees nearby for the fire. The rest of the crew prepared the food to cook and chattered between themselves. Aquila didn’t feel like joining them right away, haunted by thoughts from his past that continued to bother him.
“Be ready with that wood soon, Aquila,” Speeder called, waving a hand. “We get hungry here, and Firebot has to warm up his tools to check up on LadyJet and cure the new ‘bot.”
Aquila forced a smile on his depressed face. “Almost done, buddy! No worries.” He kept on picking up wood from the ground and the lower branches of the trees, and bringing them to the campfire, although his mind was almost totally absent.
16 years earlier (1977)
“Get ready for the show. We’re going to beat them today,” his master ordered with a big grin on his face.
Paolo Blando was a genius roboticist, but he liked to keep most of his better creations to himself. A huge anime fan, he modeled his robots after the most gorgeous Earth creatures. Aquila was one of them, modeled after an eagle.
The problem with his newest creation was the ALL-Life paradigm. Unlike his other robots, he had created Aquila to be sentient and he had succeeded at it. He wouldn’t believe it at first, but when he realized that the ALL-Life project was no joke, he started to get creative with his uses of the newest creation. Robot “talent” shows had been in vogue since 1973 and was his favorite activity, as it was easy for him to win since Aquila didn’t need control.
Unlike the last time, when his competitor brought in a smart, albeit non-sentient, robot to the festival. Paolo was absolutely sure Aquila would beat it this time.
Only, Aquila wasn’t that sure. The late 1976 festival had been a total flop because of his depression, not because the other robot outsmarted him. He felt really bad about himself, and about his creator, that he wanted so much to keep happy and smiling, but something just didn’t hold for him. He knew to be more than a show robot. He knew to be a person. Yet, his creator wouldn’t see that, or he wouldn’t see it to a degree to think of him as a person, like another human being.
It was a complicated matter, and Aquila felt really low about it.
It was time to step outside of the room and get on the stage. People’s votes would be the ultimate judge of what he really existed for.
The other robot won the show by a hair’s breadth. Aquila wasn’t really sure of how it had happened, because the presenter had given the two robots a quiz, and the quiz had been on general culture, that his master had been instructing him carefully about. He wasn’t sure if the other robot was sentient like him, but he had won the quiz, and Aquila had lost, much to Paolo’s disappointment.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Paolo said while driving on the way back home, “I taught you everything about culture. How could that robot outsmart you?”
“He knew a few more,” Aquila said humbly, afraid to even speak after his failure.
“Probably so, Aquila, yeah… but I lost money on this show and that’s never going to come back.”
“I’m sorry, master. I understand your disappointment.”
“You? Understand my disappointment? Hah!”
“Nah, don’t be. But probably I’ll have to find another use for you. These shows are getting expensive if we don’t win.”
Aquila felt somewhat relieved by his master’s words, and hinted at a smile. Something within him pushed him to try to hug his creator, but he resolved that it wouldn’t be a good idea.
“Master,” he said instead. “Why do I exist the way I do?”
“Uhm? What?” Paolo stopped the car in front of the gate of his house, frantically looking for his keys.
“Why did you create me?”
“Uhm… not sure… I wanted to give the ALL-Life project a try, I guess. Try to see if I could build a sentient robot.”
“And what do you think of the sentient robot you created, now that I’ve been with you for nearly three years?” Something within him told him he should stop now, because he was asking too many questions.
Paolo found the keys. “I think you’re cool. But you talk too much.”
Sitting around the fire, with a fully recovered LadyJet coddled by Speeder and his endless chattering, Firebot addressed a still thoughtful Aquila.
“Hey,” he said. “Do you think we’re doing the right thing? Using a child for our scopes?”
Aquila startled and blinked, suddenly dragged away from his thoughts. “Excuse me?”
“Luisa,” Firebot said, with a look of concern on his face. “Don’t you think we’re taking advantage of her?”
“She wants to help, and we need help. It’s an exchange and I really see no ‘use’ in that, Fire.”
“She’s still a child, though.”
“I know that, but what choice do we have? She’s one of our few human allies, and our friend. She’s happy around us and she’s in no immediate danger. Maybe the Mayor will listen to what a child has to say and offer us a bit of help once he recognizes that we’re sentient.”
“Maybe you’re right…” Firebot sighed and took a sip of water from his plastic mug. “I just don’t believe the Mayor will hear her, nor that he’ll give us that chance. Even the entrepreneurs around here don’t think we’re truly alive, except for the two souls who support us.”
“We’ll see about that.” Aquila stared into the sky for a long moment, holding his mug still. “Tell me, friend: how’s the new robot?”
“Ancieron?” Firebot took another sip. “Well, I’m glad the guys used some tact when they brought him here. He was unconscious and his body was badly wounded. It took me some time to bring him online and I don’t even have all the tools I need, here.” He sighed. “Like me, he has a last name. Loveheart. I think I heard of him somewhere.”
“Me too,” said Aquila. “Some old files at my creator’s place. I think he was one of the first ALL-Life prototypes.”
Firebot turned to stare at him. “Are you kidding me? I haven’t checked his serial number, but what would a robot like that be doing here?”
“We should ask the guys if they know anything more.”
“No, I mean… a robot like that would probably remain in a laboratory or a science museum.”
“Is that the life you’d want for yourself?”
Firebot rolled his optics and sighed. “You know what I mean.”
Placing his mug on the ground, Aquila sighed. “We’ll find out.”
* * *
12 March 1993
It was the third time she tried to speak to the Mayor. She had even come to ask her parents to drive her to school half an hour earlier so she could run to the town hall and try again. She didn’t have luck nor time to talk, but at least she could get a hold of the Mayor as he got out of his car to hand him a handwritten letter.
That afternoon, Luisa took advantage of grandma Maurizia’s nap once more to sneak off and run up the tree-lined road outside of the condo area where she lived. Sitting on a bench a few meters away, near the VIS supermarket, Aquila, Sprinter and Speeder waited for her. Speeder sat on the bench with a carefree attitude, his left leg bent up, foot on the bench and elbow resting on his left knee.
Luisa hugged them with enthusiasm, asking them how they and the others were doing.
“We get by,” Speeder said, caressing her curly-haired head. “Now we have another robot in the group. His name’s Ancieron Loveheart. Yeah, he has a last name like Firebot.” The red robot gave a happy smile that infected the little girl. Luisa’s face lit up with joy.
“Oooh, he sounds like a cool one! I want to meet him!”
Aquila patted her shoulder gently. “For now, he can’t come with us. He doesn’t feel very well, but soon you will meet him.”
Luisa looked down to her feet and interlaced fingers behind her back. “I… haven’t managed to speak to the Mayor yet… but I gave him the letter. I hope he’s gonna read it.”
Speeder let out a sigh of relief and gently hit his knuckles against Aquila’s shoulder. “Well, better than nothing, right?”
Aquila nodded, looking at Speeder, then he returned his attention to Luisa and lifted her chin with an affectionate smile, caressing her cheek with his thumb.
“There was nothing else that you could do. You did your best,” Aquila reassured her.
“That woman at the entrance didn’t help me, but she gave me a smile. I hope she’s an ally.”
Sprinter chuckled and ruffled her hair. “Let’s hope so, little one. We sure need some allies for our cause.”
“I hope the Mayor does what I asked…”
“And what is it that you asked?” Speeder sounded a little alarmed.
“Just that he phones after 4PM and he says he’s the father of one of my schoolmates, so my parents don’t get suspicious. I’ll say that I have a list of homework she missed and I’ll sort of codename it. Now I can’t remember it all – it’s in my notebook at home.”
“Clever kid! You really may be getting a phone call soon.” Sprinter was excited.
“But… do you need anything? I mean, to eat, to warm up, water… I’ll try to do what I can.”
“We could use some food scraps and clean water,” said Speeder. “But our other friends, who are adult men, can do that for us. Don’t worry, you’re already doing a lot.”
“Okay…” Luisa’s cheeks turned red. “Please tell Anci that I send him a hug. I want him to be well soon. And is LadyJet okay, too?”
“She’s fully healed and doing wonderfully,” said Aquila, bending to kiss her forehead.
Luisa used the opportunity to throw her arms around his neck and hold him close. “I hope everything goes well, really. I want you to have a real home. I want every sentient robot on Earth to have one.”
“One robot at a time, little angel,” said Speeder. His eyes were bright with fluid, but he was not alone in feeling the effects of such strong emotions.
* * *
He didn’t like to take work home after a long day, but sometimes things didn’t go as expected. He had been nervous all night, and after dinner, he was still mulling over the strange letter that insistent child had given him before he could leave the hall. At bedtime, he was reading it again.
“What is it, honey?” his wife asked, scouting under the blankets with a book. “You’ve been about that letter since you returned home.”
“Just some matters from work,” he dismissed the thing, but his wife was not one to be dismissed easily. She remained there staring at him, without even opening her book, that he had to say something at last.
“You know about those robot sightings that have been reported recently? Those who always go around in groups and without an owner?”
“Yes. Sentient robots, I heard,” she said. “What about them?”
“Well… it’s probably time I do something about it.”
His wife sighed softly and pushed a lock of dyed brown hair behind her ear. “Then do something about it. Why being so agitated?”
It was the Mayor’s turn to sigh. “These robots want a home. They want to be treated like people. It’s not an easy decision to make… the city council will be against me as soon as I mention it.”
His wife puffed. “You’re giving those robots too much importance. Why care about what a bunch of machines ask? They might not even be really sentient. I think they’re just programmed to say those things so their creator can reap the benefits.”
Fernando Cesari looked at his wife. “Maybe you are right… but maybe you are not. I’m going to receive these robots and see with my eyes if they’re a real thing or not. And honestly, I think they are.”
* * *
13 March 1993
Luisa had a crazy load of homework to do for the next day, which didn’t exactly thrill her, but since there was nothing she could do about it, Luisa decided to do her best and make her teachers proud. However, even with all that motivation, she found it hard to focus. The Mayor hadn’t called her the day before, and she had been thinking maybe her letter hadn’t been that persuasive. Maybe she should write another, a more convincing one soon.
Aquila and the others relied on her initiative, because there was no way they could approach the Mayor without getting blocked by the police. They were “only” robots, after all. Worse, they were sentient, and of those few people who believed sentient robots were a real thing, the majority thought that they couldn’t be trusted.
Luisa’s mother stepped into the living room to check on her homework. Puffing, Luisa showed her the notebooks.
“I’m almost done with Math, Mama. I’ll do Italian grammar later.”
“I’m more worried about your Math, you know,” her mother said, inspecting her work. “Your teacher wasn’t exactly pleased with your results the last time.”
“I’m doing my best, Mama, but I don’t get all of it. Maybe I just need more time.” Luisa made it sound like a plea, and hopefully one that meant she wanted to be left alone. But her mom didn’t reply because the phone rang and she went to pick up.
Luisa caught the occasion to take her notebook back and resume doing Math exercises, but her mom came back to the room and announced: “It’s for you, Lu. Your classmate Marilisa’s dad is on the line.”
Luisa blinked, confused. She had no classmate by the name of Marilisa – but could that be the Mayor instead? Full of hope, she ran to pick up the phone.
“Hi Luisa,” she heard a man’s voice say, “I’m Fernando Cesari, the Mayor of Genzano di Roma. I read your letter. Is this a good moment to talk?”
“Hold on, Mr. Calli,” she invented on the spot, “I have the homework for Marilisa in my notebook. I’m going to pick it up.”
After a few seconds, Luisa heard the Mayor say “okay”, so she went to retrieve her secret notebook that she kept in her backpack among her school ones. Picking up the phone again, Luisa said: “Alright, I have the schoolwork here.”
“Luisa,” the Mayor said, “I think I can do something for your robot friends, provided that they can give back to the community. And I bet they would, wouldn’t they?”
“Yes, sir. I think I can tell you exactly what.”
“What is it?”
“The homework is about finding a real house where these patrons can stay and start living a real life as people. Then the patrons will pay it back slowly as they manage to find paid work.”
“That works, and it sounds very similar to what I was thinking. But you see, I need to talk to your robot friends personally, see for myself that they’re really sentient and conscious. Then I’ll decide what to do next. Can you organize a meeting at the town hall? For next Saturday?”
She was electrified by the Mayor’s words, but anxious about what he was asking. “I think it’s possible. Marilisa’s older friends will meet on Saturday at the town hall around 3PM for two hours. They don’t have much time, so they really need to do everything in one hour.”
The Mayor laughed. “Can be done, yes. We’ll see then. Thanks for bringing this up to me, Luisa.”
“Oh, you’re welcome!” the child said cheerily.
The Mayor said goodbye and hung up, and just to keep the appearances with her mom, Luisa said to the void: “tell Marilisa to do all the homework or she’ll get a bad mark!”
* * *
20 March 1993
Aquila held Luisa’s hand as they waited for the Mayor’s representative under the arch of the town hall. It was almost 3PM and Speeder was getting quite fidgety.
“They make us wait longer just because we’re robots!”
“Don’t be silly, Speed,” said Firebot, shaking his head. “We simply are not a priority, robots or not. They made Luisa wait a long time, too.”
“Because she’s a child,” Speeder replied, huffing.
“Whatever,” Firebot said, raising his hands in a frustrated gesture.
“Calm down guys,” said Aquila. “Let’s keep our cool. Besides, I believe that both of you are right about this matter. But waiting is all we can do, so let’s just do that.”
“I’m sorry that I couldn’t help this,” Luisa said in a sad tone, stroking Aquila’s hand. The robot raised that hand to caress her cheek.
“This is none of your fault, Lu. You did all you could. Now it’s the Mayor’s turn to keep his promise.”
“And he better do it soon,” said Speeder. “Because we can’t afford doing this without Luisa, and she has to go home in two hours.”
Firebot cupped a hand over Speeder’s shoulder for a gentle pat, but he said nothing to the red robot this time. He looked for a good minute at Sprinter who was playing with his yo-yo. Ancieron and LadyJet kept silent and waiting, cross-armed. They were standing next to the opening of the arch of the town hall, and their golden and green armors shone with the sunlight, giving more contrast to their dim expressions. So it was with gaiety that Firebot said, “Someone’s coming!” when he heard movement from inside the anteroom with the staircase that leads to the upper floors.
The Mayor’s representative, the brunette who had dismissed Luisa some time earlier, appeared from the entrance door.
“The Mayor can now receive you,” she said, looking suspiciously at the group of robots and the child. “Please, follow me.”
When she turned, the group had to rush after her because she wouldn’t stop to check if they were still there. Luisa decided she didn’t like her at all, but she didn’t voice her thoughts to avoid drama. They reached floor two where the Mayor’s office was and the representative first knocked twice and then opened the door.
“Mr. Cesari, the robots and the child are here,” she announced. The group didn’t speak a word while they observed the gray-haired middle-aged man rise from his chair and make the rounds around the desk to come and welcome them.
“It’s nice to finally meet you. I’m sorry it took me so long to come to this decision. I was skeptical at first, but now I see it was wise accepting Luisa’s letter.” And to Luisa: “Thanks for bringing your friends here.”
Just as the representative left the room, Luisa smiled at the Mayor and thanked him for having them today. “You’re a good man,” she said with a bright smile.
The Mayor chuckled and tenderly stroked her cheek. “And you’re a good child.”
“Thanks for having us, Mr. Mayor,” said Aquila, holding out a hand to shake. The Mayor took it.
“It’s a pleasure, Mr. Robot. May I know your name?”
“Aquila… like the eagle. I like it. And are you the leader of your group, Aquila?”
The robot didn’t respond, taken aback by the question, since no one ever considered themselves a leader among them. But Speeder said: “Oh, he’s like a leader for us. And he worked with Luisa to organize this meeting, so yeah.”
The others in the group nodded, so Aquila said: “Well, let’s say I’m the leader this once.”
“I’m astounded that robots like you exist. I mean, sentient robots.”
Aquila took a few seconds to think before saying: “Actually, we’ve existed for a while. But most of us have remained in laboratories or at the service of our creators or owners. Me and my group… we weren’t as lucky.”
“So you’re saying that there’s some kind of actual project to produce sentient robots like you?”
“Yes, sir. It’s called the ALL-Life Project2. Sentient robots who can easily integrate with humans and most of us can even reproduce and eat organic food. It’s a line of research that has been ongoing since the fifties but it hasn’t been advertised a lot.”
The Mayor nodded, thoughtful. “Yes, and I can understand why. People would be scared of robots who can think, feel and act like humans. Maybe you are as dangerous as a human can be, too.”
“No, sir! They wouldn’t hurt anyone!” Luisa said, worriedly. Firebot put his hands on her small shoulders and rubbed them, whispering soothing words to her.
“Maybe,” Aquila said to the Mayor, “but since we exist as sentient beings, we should be able to make our own choices. And most of us would never hurt a human being. We understand the order of things, we know human life comes before ours, and most of us were built with restraints to our free will to protect humans. Therefore, we don’t constitute a threat.”
“That’s very good, Aquila, and I want to offer as much help as possible,” Mayor Cesari said. “Let’s say I find you a place where to live. Would you and your companions agree to work to give back on the help received?”
Aquila tilted his head. “While we can promise to never cause harm to humans, we can’t do much about money. We are not allowed to work legally. Or were you thinking of something else?”
Fernando Cesari stroke his shaven beard. “I thought of giving you monetary help to start living your new life, under the condition that you give that money back at the end of the first quinquennial. But you raise a good objection, that I hadn’t thought about. I suppose I will have to do some legal changes for the town of Genzano, so you can work legally here. I can’t help outside of Genzano, though. Would that be a deal?”
“Heck, it would be great!” Speeder exclaimed suddenly. Aquila turned to tell him to not interrupt, but the Mayor didn’t seem to bother. He laughed instead.
“Mr. Cesari,” Aquila said, turning to face the Mayor. “Are you saying that you will allow us to work for pay in the town of Genzano? And that you will give us monetary help to get started?”
The Mayor nodded and walked to Luisa, caressing her head gently. “Yes, after literally fighting with the city council to take your requests in serious consideration and assign you a place to live. But you can thank your little friend here for that. She asked that I consider giving you money to start a new life, but you understand that I can’t just give out town money for free and the council would never allow me to do more than this. I can help you for five years, then you will have to return the money to the town. But I will make sure you can earn enough for that and to sustain yourselves.”
“That’s very generous of you to take on so much trouble for us,” Ancieron said. “But here’s still the problem that we can’t legally work for pay. We are not legally recognized as people. Do you think you can find a workaround?”
“I hope you have one, if we have to make this work, Mr. Mayor,” Aquila said. “I helped with the grape harvest at the Cantine Sociali3 in 1992 and I was told they couldn’t pay me because I was not a person. I still got some money, but it was more of a ‘thank you’ gift than a payment.”
“I thought about that,” Cesari said with a smile, “and I think the easiest way to get you paid is to register all of you under my ownership so that you figure as owned robots that I loan out to shops. I will of course give you the money at the end of each month. I think this method might work out until we come up with some law that makes you equal to humans. Because, well… as stunning as it sounds, you are!”
“Thanks, Mr. Mayor,” Aquila said, smiling softly. “It might be a long way before we get any rights, but today you are offering us something no one else would. And for that, we are grateful.”
* * *
“So our home will be the ex-library,” LadyJet said, sitting on a wooden case turned upside down and sipping tea. She kept her wings closed behind her back and her elbows on her knees.
“Yes, isn’t that cool?” Luisa said, playing with Sprinter’s yo-yo while sitting comfortably on Aquila’s lap.
“I can’t believe the Mayor is an ally,” Sprinter said, fingers interlaced in a relaxed fashion over his knees. “To be completely honest, I thought he would only see us to have a reason to kick us out of the city or have us recycled.”
“Hey, he can’t just recycle a bunch of sentient ‘bots,” Speeder reacted. “We’re not mindless machines you can do anything to.”
“I even treat my parents’ cars with kindness,” Luisa chirped, looking up at Aquila’s face, who placed a kiss on the top of her head.
“You’re a unique case of machine lover, Lu,” Aquila laughed.
“Seriously though,” said Ancieron, pouring more tea from the kettle on the fire to his cup. “We’ve been lucky. We’ll be assigned the ex library, which is huge for our group. It’s like having a residential area all for us. We should give it a name.”
“Before we think of a name, we should give more thought to Mayor Cesari’s offer to own us legally so we can get paid for our jobs,” Aquila said. “I already said we would, but is anyone having second thoughts?”
“No second thoughts,” Ancieron said. “And although being owned is not among the things I’d vote for, I guess I’m not the only one, right guys?”
All the robots nodded their heads. Luisa sighed. “If I were older, I would offer to own you so you could do all you want.”
“Thanks, Lu,” LadyJet said, smiling. “But the Mayor sounds like a good person too. And we hope that, by the time you’re an adult, we’ll have our rights and no longet need to rely on being a human’s property.”
“LadyJet has a point,” said Sprinter. “Once we are settled in the new home, we should do something about our rights. Maybe the Mayor can help us. He said he’s been called a defender of social justice by the public. Makes sense that he would try to help us further.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Firebot. “For someone may be willing to help in one area but not in another. But I have good hopes that the Mayor will help us, yes.”
“I can try to talk to him again,” said Luisa. “And see if he will help with your rights, too.”
“No need,” said Aquila. “This is something we can handle alone now that we have a link to the Mayor. You’ve already done so much for us.”
“That’s right,” Firebot added. “All we want from you now is to be a happy child and keep loving machines just the way you do.”
The others chuckled and nodded their approval. Luisa smiled proudly and said she would keep coming to see them and fly with Aquila because it was the coolest feeling in the world.
1 A nearby town to Genzano di Roma.
3 Real event from 1992.