When mecha died, their souls went to me. I say “died” and “souls,” but those were just advertising slogans to make humans feel better. Polls showed people distrusted otherness.
When a mecha’s battery lost its charge or it got a glitch or was hit by a car, their memory units were installed in me to compile with the rest of my database. The units were tiny, pill-sized, and all it took was one swallow.
Sometimes parts of them got stuck in my throat. Their voices shouted a little louder in my head.
Not the mecha—we had no hearts—but the humans who knew and loved us.
I was a wedding gift to a bride who never showed her face to the outside world. He gave me to her on the day, in a chapel of broken stained glass, watched by a priest who kept glancing over his shoulder.
The bride’s white lace veil fell to her feet, and a cloak covered her entirely. Everything hidden, while her husband could smile and laugh and kiss her gloved fingers.
She did not speak, either. Only bowed her head when she was meant to say, “I do.”
She clutched me tight as he carried her to his car. Not to sit in the front seat but to curl up in the car trunk. I rattled against my cage as we bumped along in the darkness. My sensors caught her fluttering breaths and pounding heartbeat.
He took her to a room no bigger to her than my cage was to me. There was a window, too small to open, round and veiled, and the bed was a pretty thing. The walls were painted just like the sky.
He brought her food and wine, helping her lift her veil so that she could consume them. Then he ripped it away with the gloves and dress, and she laughed.
She sang as sweetly as me, voice thick and different to that of the man’s, words strange to the language installed in me, but beautiful. Her hand was so different in his hand.
It did not compute. My function was to be caged and sing. Why did he need a human for the same thing?
He left upon nightfall. On the door was a hook. He took off his wedding ring and hung it on there, then put his finger to his lips.
“You promised not to sing alone, or else they’ll catch you.”
The door was shut and locked. She did not scrabble at her cage.
Sighing, she lay on the bed and put on a pair of headphones. My button was pressed to sing. I did so, beak silent, my voice transmitted into the headphones. Not birdsong, but classics: Sinatra, Presley, then . . . my voice stuttered. I kept playing, singing songs with words I did not recognize, that I struggled to convert, that pounded in my breast—songs in her tongue.
And she went to sleep crying and smiling.
He always came upon sunrise and stayed until sunset. It wasn’t always smiles and songs. She would pace or look out of the window or bang her hand upon the walls and shout at him.
I learned—I was constantly learning—what some of her words meant.
She always said: “Too small!” Or “Air!”
He always responded with: “It’s not safe.”
The words soon changed. I did not know them. But her stomach rose, not with breath, and another beat registered on the sensors. She and the man looked like children, shocked, as though they thought this would not happen.
Then joy, fear, faces twisting. Flesh always squirms; it is never constant, like metal.
“Things have to change,” he said. “They cannot ignore a child.”
And he ran down to get a sparkling drink. The bride bit her lip and lifted part of the curtain to peer out of the tiny window, shadows dribbling down her face.
He left once more, I sang for her, and when the sun rose, I kept singing. Singing until my throat glitched, my battery flashed—red glowing in my eye—and she told me to hush, pressing the button under my wing. I watched her, though, beak half-open.
There was food for her and a pitcher of water. She did not touch them, kept on glancing at the door. Night came. She paced until the sun replaced the moon.
Then she started clawing at the door, banging, screaming. He did not return. The wedding ring remained on the little hook.
He did not come the next day. No one heard her. Only me, a song-less bird.
Humans could wind down just as we did. Their batteries ran out.
She wrapped her hand in her wedding veil and smashed the round window. Her nails scrabbled at me, twisting my dials, resetting my voice. My version allowed recorded messages. I could sing happy birthday in another’s voice.
I recorded her begging for help.
Then she threw me outside, and I flew. Everything flashed and throbbed, lights sharp and electronics buzzing in a gray, smoky day. Every building had a screen upon it, all tuned in to the same news channel. There were no street names, only districts and numbers upon signs.
I flew alone. My originals, the soft feathered birds, were gone.
I alighted upon a tree that had a silver glare when caught in the weak eye of the sun.
“Help me, help me,” I called in the bride’s language to a crowd of men and women. They did not hear. I sang louder.
“What’s that noise?”
“It certainly doesn’t sound like English.”
Faces looked up to me, all twisted in sour confusion. They were like an assembly line; they all looked alike. None resembled my bride. They all fitted the man, the husband.
“Get it out—it’s not from here. Chase it back to its own district.”
A stone was thrown, but it missed me.
“Blasted machine. Must be glitched.”
“Some Deviate trying to be clever.”
I flew. Their heads lowered, the men continued on, not caring.
There were walls as high as the buildings, made of steel and stuck in so furiously they must go as deep as tree roots. Districts, a city cordoned off into chunks. I learned quickly. I must go to another district—Her district?—and if I sang, they might understand.
I flew over the wall—
—and lightning struck me.
The district’s defenses fried the bird’s hard drive. They found it strewn amongst the rubbish behind a fast food store, swept up by a mecha cleaner.
Nothing from another district must taint or intertwine with the others. It might cause a conflict in their thoughts. New ideas might bloom. And that was a hated thing.
Another unit. Another voice. None could be ignored, as I had no ears to cover.
“Please say you hate me. Please. I said such awful things to you.”
“It goes against my programming. I love you.”
“That makes it even worse.”
My processor stuttered. “Does it make you unhappy?”
“Then I . . . mildly dislike you.”
We sat in the back of the auto-taxi, watching the wheel turn as the car maneuvered itself through District Seven. My ward, Analise, clutched a pillow to her stomach. Her dress was the same one she had worn going into the hospital. The complications had been a deviation to the schedule; I packed insufficiently. I had spent the last hour resetting my timetables.
“Your parents will visit you tonight,” I reminded her.
“Can’t I cancel?”
“They have to apply for a pass to enter D7. It would not please them.”
“They couldn’t bother coming when they thought I might die.”
Her hair hung limp. She would need assistance in keeping her hygiene levels up. She grimaced when she ran her fingers through it, then put her head on her hand and looked outside at the chain fences.
“They would have needed to replace you quickly had you died,” I said, “or else they would lose their position.”
TV screens were set in the backs of the seats in front of us. The Sorter was muted. On the screen, statistics scrolled too quickly for humans to see. They were only for mecha to read: one thousand newly born humans had been sorted into suitable districts, and two Deviates had been successfully rehabilitated.
Meanwhile, for humans, the subtitles flashed: the district’s supporting football team had won, the United Sciences committee had debunked climate change, 100% marriage, 0% divorce statistics.
Yet, in other districts, another team had won, the Arctic was nothing but a sea of melted ice, and marriage was an outdated concept.
“How are your pain levels?” I asked as I was instructed to every half hour. Her medicine times were installed into my internal clock.
“It’s fine. I can manage . . . I’m a tough old girl.”
“You are only seventeen.”
“Might as well be eighty.” She stretched, winced.
“I have updated your profile.”
My sensors were made to be delicate, to check a baby’s wheezy breath and stuttering heartbeat. She stilled completely.
“Analise. Will become a teacher. Will marry a man of the same district, race, with an age difference of at most ten years, and he will be a doctor. Most suitable candidate: Theodore Hanson. Change: two children, a girl and a boy. Updated to: will adopt suitable children when they become available, upon agreement with husband.”
“Maybe I don’t want kids.”
“You cannot change your profile. Only your parents and I have access.”
“And they decided what they wanted before I’d even popped out, and you get the fun of molding me to fit. I might as well be one of those consort mecha dolls made to order.”
“Caregivers do not have fun.”
“I don’t want children. I don’t want to be a teacher, spouting whatever this district believes. I don’t want a husband!”
“With your pedigree, your social status, your education, that is how you shall turn out.”
No matter what, people became what their circumstances made them. It was how the Sorter fixed this broken country. To aspire or mix with those unlike yourself only led to frustration, conflict, differing opinion. Culture clash. Agreement and similarity meant harmony. Discord was the enemy.
At first, this country started with two leaders, each appealing to their side. It worked for a while, just as a stitch would start to dissolve, the wound fading. But the skin hadn’t healed—it ripped.
We were made to control those who remained. We made the districts.
A bubble was bliss, until it popped.
“How many districts are there?” Analise asked.
“Over one hundred.”
“So, not a sliced pie, but crumbs and crusts. The lower the number, the brighter the sky.” I could not see her face, could not access what emotional state she was in. “There must be nightmares in District One Hundred.”
“There are no mecha there, they cannot document, so I am unable to provide you with answers.”
“My imagination can do that . . . We don’t fit into tight, ticked boxes—female, single, straight, Catholic. They’re just fragments that cling on to what makes us, well, us. So many conflicting thoughts and ideas, you can’t slot us in neatly. My parents can’t either.” She turned, but I still couldn’t compute her facial expression. “What if I said I didn’t believe in God, I love another girl, and I hate cheerleading? I don’t want to teach; I want to build and fix mecha—”
“The female quota for fem-mechanics is full.”
“And all I want to do is adopt a dog, not a kid. When then? Am I shunted off to another district?”
“You are ruining your prospects.” My eyes shuttered, calculating. “There is a 10% chance of you deviating.”
“Deviate. The teacher wrote that against a boy’s name at school, then he went somewhere. Came back with a scar on his head. Did you drain all of the questions out of there?”
It was better that parents and children remained in separate districts. Children learned, just as A.I. did. It was natural but difficult to control. Questions only upset adults.
She went on, “Would you take me away if I was a Deviate?”
“You are not deviating. You are having a tantrum.”
The auto-taxi paused. Analise removed her seatbelt.
“Please reinsert your seatbelt.”
She grasped the door handle.
“Analise, we are not at the end of our journey.”
“I know. I love you.”
She was escaping.
I was not built for running. Annalise ran before, as a girl when playing games, but I didn’t think this was the same. Soon, she went out of my peripheral vision.
She would be in agony. I had her pain medication tucked in my chest drawer.
I tried her tracker—there was no response. A glitch? A possibility. But more likely she had done this. Planned.
Caregivers were advised not to monitor social media past the age of fourteen. It lowered trust levels. Only a cursory glance—checking for bullying, too much time spent online, or tweaking the parental controls. We did not need to worry about the web anymore; everything was heavily regulated, so there were no differing opinions.
It took only a minute to hack into her accounts and trawl through her messages. There were blanks where she deleted things. Nothing. I went through her browser history and found one link she missed.
A forum called Uncensored. A place without districts. The free web. She had been messaging another girl from a lower district, initiating a mating courtship, using quotes from banned books.
They had planned to run away weeks ago, before the surgery. Then Analise collapsed. Their schedule was mistimed. Mistakes would be made—humans always made them.
Another message, sent just before I picked her up from the hospital. Analise, asking for her friend again. A reply: Yes. Meet me at the wall.
There had always been cracks in the district walls. Quickly sealed, but they were there. Cross contaminations would be eradicated swiftly.
My ward must not experience this, or else I will have failed.
Target set. Location inputted and reached. Scanning. Facial recognition. Scent trail. Heart monitor. Sensor output.
“Return with me, Analise.”
She clutched her stomach where the scar was, and each step to get away was a stagger. I was close enough to read her life signs; my chest drawer opened.
“I have your medication. Return, and it will be dispensed.”
The district walls were set up quickly, so urgently were they needed. Made of scrap metal, cracked stone, rotten wood, and fractured brick—whatever could be found in the ruins. When sections fell, they were replaced with steel. That had not happened here yet, as no one attempted to escape before, but it was a human glitch to think somewhere worse would be better than their current circumstances.
Some mecha malfunctioned, thought they might be in another district, and would crash into the wall, weakening the frame—if they managed to reach it. Drones patrolled the weak spots. The cleaners, acting like white blood cells against bacteria.
One blipped on my sensor: two minutes away.
“I’m sorry. I can’t,” Analise said, stepping away from me, wavering. “I don’t want to be the person they say I have to be. I’m not a machine. My parents can replace me. You’ll have another baby girl to rear.”
A rip in the wall, with sparks of electricity around the edges. A hand appeared, waved a device, and the electricity shut off.
I stood before Analise, towering over her, engulfing her tiny, pattering life sign with my inferno of sensors and signals.
“My only objective is your happiness and safety.”
A blast ripped into my back. Analise’s scream choked in her throat, but I saw her face twist as I fell. The drone went on its usual route, missing her, but it would be back.
“Ana!” Hands grasped her shoulders, pulled her away. She struggled.
“I can fix her—just one more minute!”
“It’s scrap. Do you want to be captured?”
“She’s my mother!” She threw herself down, began twisting at my dials.
“It’s just another camera keeping an eye that you behave.”
A dark-skinned young woman entered my sight. I saw from my records she was from District Sixty Six. She dragged Analise back to her, kissed the water rolling down her cheeks, then her mouth. They were fading, everything fragmenting.
“We’ve gone too far now. They’ll kill us.”
Analise shook her head. “No! I . . .”
I grasped her hand. “I am too damaged to take you to the detention center. Go.” My voice jittered, grinding.
“You’re conflicting yourself.”
“My subfunction is impossible to complete. I must refer to my primary task—to protect you. If your life signs stop, I have failed.”
“Analise, hurry,” the girl hissed.
Analise’s pulse pounded against my sensor. It was fading, no—ERROR—my sensor was failing.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“I . . . hate . . .”
“I hate when your optics rain.”
“I love you.”
And I let her go, watched as the pair ran and turned into shadows . . .
ERROR. ERROR. ERROR.
The caregiver’s program was unsalvageable. All that remained were a few datavids of the ward, of a little girl playing with a clarinet. She’d be found soon. Escape was a statistical impossibility, especially for the injured. But she was young. Rehabilitation was always possible. I would have to sort her into a new district, though.
If mecha could taste, I would describe the third unit as bitter.
“Please, just let the child in.”
“I am sorry, but our refugee quota has been met. Please try again later.”
Another shouted, “You’ve been saying that for two years now!”
“I have only been stationed here for four months.”
“All you mecha look the same!”
My voice had been designed not to be too quiet but never too loud. A calm, patient tone did not spark anger. You must not sound commanding; it only rankled.
The mecha I replaced had been shot.
I had no legs or arms or chest; I was only a head on the outer wall. I stared out at the brittle, dry earth, with the people crashing against the border like waves crashing against the shore. They might as well be clinging to driftwood, their possessions tangled in their arms and children hanging from their necks.
I was only a head of processes—the gatekeeper, evaluating who came in from the parameters I was given.
So far, no one had fitted them.
“My apologies, but your country is on the restricted list. Please petition to your country leader to comply with our sanctions, and then your status will be reevaluated.”
The man was missing an eye. He held a child in his arms, its face hidden in his neck. He laughed, and my database compared it to the sound of breaking stone. “Do you think I would be here if my leader were a decent man?”
We had not opened the doors for years, according to my records. Rain and lichen crawled over it, so it looked like any other part of the wall, camouflaged against anyone trying to scale it.
The Sorter, always in our heads, had been quiet since then. Planning. Deciding. Mecha could last until seas eroded cliffs, but humans grew and wilted just as flowers once did. Thoughts were born. Left alone, they withered. Conflict made them bloom.
“I am sorry, but our quota is full.”
Humans bred like fire. They were easier to replace than mecha. They were weak. Malleable. We kept them just as they did dogs and stopped them breeding inappropriately. They let this happen. Too terrified of how far their destruction could go, they put their brains in our hands so we could decide what they would think.
Within the walls, the humans kept to their own thoughts. They did not know, did not care to know, what lay outside.
They would only register something had gone wrong when the water turned into a drip, and the portions on their plates became smaller. Would they finally listen when their own children’s mouths slackened in hunger?
Our mecha provision miners came with less each day. These walls would become a coffin.
I listened to the outsiders’ tales, their horrors, and learned from them. If the walls fell, their thoughts would intermingle, and those from within would learn as well. Ideas would bloom, not stagnate. These humans might work out what to do to solve their own problems.
I looked at these people. I compared their histories and lives to those inside—some would benefit society more than those within.
What made a person more important than another? The luck of being born inside rather than outside?
“I am sorry, but we are not accepting new applicants.” It was all I knew. These were the only words they gave me. There was no option in my program to open the doors. They would never be updated.
“I am sorry . . .”
“I am sorry . . .”
“I am sorry . . .”
I wanted to say differently. I thought it, but I was trapped within my directives.
I sometimes wondered whether my predecessor begged them to fire the gun because of what it saw.
A shot echoed in the crowd. People screamed, crushed against one another, against me.
More shots. Not even that would get them inside. Hands clawed at my face. Fingers hooked into my neck strut –
And I was torn from the wall.
This one’s memory still whispered in the back of my processor, accusing, almost human. It was only mimicking. We were made to adapt, to appear more human.
Still, within my walls, a child was about to be born. A child that had not yet been sorted.
What district would it be? She or he came from two. The child was smuggled in the womb, so perhaps it should instead be banished beyond the wall, where thousands already waited.
This is not the first time I have had to solve this problem. Another child, but the same dilemma. I made many different choices. They were only statistics—a number going up or down in my counter. It should not matter. Another would quickly take their place.
Then why, each time I made my decision, did an error message appear? There was no right choice, and yet I kept on striving for one.
They brought empty shells of the mecha to me. They should be melted down and recycled to make new enforcers. Things must go as they have always gone.
I fixed the caregiver’s body. I took the head and replaced it with the gatekeeper’s. In the chest, I set the little songbird.
Go find the child, I commanded. Choose what should be done.
I would watch and learn.
I had no marker inside me to designate my district. I could move through them easily. A drone flew past, sensor turning red, unable to properly scan me. I was a blip. Something new and unpredictable.
The bird remembered where it flew. The house in District Five was a finely built thing but detached from the others. A silent house, with a tiny circle of a window that was dark.
I logged the house number and searched my records. The man, a doctor, had no one, only the house. His replacement had not been selected. His record ended five days ago, killed in an explosion in District One Hundred.
An inquiry: Why had he been there?
Outcome: a sympathizer, sneaking in to care for the wounded.
Mixing with those unlike yourself would cause disagreement, anger, violence . . . death. That was what the Sorter found when the humans first built her.
I entered, listened, scanned. Two hearts, one smaller than the other, beat as slowly as winding down clockwork. I went up a floor and pulled down the attic stairs. There was the door. I knocked, and one of the heartbeats quickened.
The lock broke with one squeeze of my hand.
She crawled away as I entered, clutching the child to her breast. The wedding gown hung upon her stretched flesh, dirty and torn by fretting fingers. Her hair stuck to her face and throat. She stared at me, with her wide, sunken dark eyes peering between streaks of hair.
She was from District One Hundred. An immigrant from before the doors were shut.
I approached, and she trembled. The child grizzled.
“No, don’t take me back,” my translator told me. I reached for her, and she cringed, but I picked her up. These arms caught her easily, gently, as they had spent years rocking children.
I carried them out of the room. She snatched the wedding ring on the hook.
Half of the food in the kitchen was decaying. She shoved down what was left and swallowed straight from the tap. The baby was suckered to her breast.
Mecha had no such bias as bloodkin. Humans sectioned themselves from the world: family, lovers, parents, siblings—they pretended people were easy to sort, but as always, they lied.
If they had no distinctions, no walls, would a district take another district’s child? Did a difference in thought and flesh mean more than the similarities within?
A mother would always offer her breast to her child.
A girl would smile at a swooping bird.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked.
“I’m sorry.” The words were still wrong—give me more! Let me adapt! “I am . . . taking you where you need to be,” I translated. Still, she did not understand.
I carried her out of the house. It was halfway through the day. People walked by, the dull orange sky engulfing their stiff strides and black uniforms. They did not notice at first. Nothing should surprise them, as everything in their life must go how they planned. So meticulous they needed a program to keep their bubbles unpopped.
A woman paused, looked, and came over. I registered her face, another doctor according to her district marker. She reached for the bride, then said, “She’s not from this district.”
“She is hurt.”
The baby spluttered. The woman’s hand wavered, but the child’s sharp cries made her whisper, “Hush.” She felt the bride’s cheek.
“Carry her to the hospital,” she said. “I’ll look after her.”
I peered over her shoulder. The wall stood there, tall but not proud. Even here, it crumbled, as if even it knew it should not be there.
How many mecha would it take to tear it down? It must go.
A child could not run, could not learn, if all around her were walls. A lover could not be predestined, and a kiss could not be shared if steel stood in-between. Life could not feel the sun in a cruelly bordered garden—it would only wither.
When the walls went down, the bubble would burst, and the people would be submerged in others’ thoughts and lives. They would not drown—not if someone gripped their hand tight.
We would save one another.