Concept Art Writing Prompt: A Lonely Child on the Planet of Robots

Illustration for article titled Concept Art Writing Prompt: A Lonely Child on the Planet of Robots

In today's concept art writing prompt, we're not all the same underneath the skin. At the very least, one flesh and blood child is made of very different stuff than the robots around her. Can you write her story?

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Today's illustration comes from Beomyoung Sohn and is titled "Inside of Them," via Ian Brooks. Each week, we invite you to write a piece of flash fiction based on a piece of concept art and post it in the comments. Be sure to read the often brilliant stories your fellow commenters come up with.

Here's my story based on today's artwork:

Illustration for article titled Concept Art Writing Prompt: A Lonely Child on the Planet of Robots

Annabelle watched the clock flip to 6:43 and braced for the sound of her mother's voice. "Annabelle!" she shouted at just the decibel range that would rouse her from a light morning slumber. "Breakfast!"

Annabelle padded down the steps, silently reciting the Thursday morning breakfast menu in her head: cinnamon granola with peaches. Sure enough, her mother was setting her bowl on the table just as she walked into the kitchen. About a month ago, Annabelle had complained that her granola was a little dry, and since then, the same perfect proportions of milk and cereal appeared each Thursday morning, sloshing slightly up the lip but never quite spilling over. Her mother looked at her and pursed her lips in prim frustration. "Annabelle, your hair!" she scowled. "It's getting so messy! We're going to need to get it cut." Annabelle smiled. It had been thirty-six days since her last haircut, same as last time. Next month, she'd start trimming her hair in secret and see if it threw off the pattern.

"Hey, kiddo." Her father rustled her hair as he took the seat next to her. "Ready to get to learning?"

Annabelle nodded. She loved her father, but it was his repetition that tipped her off in the first place. When he got home from work, he was so attentive, listening to her talk about her day and asking her relevant questions. But in the mornings, he never had anything to say to her, as if she were a stranger. It was always "Ready to get to learning?" A catchphrase, she realized, thinking about the characters she watched on TV. Like her parents, they were always predictable, always acting within certain constraints.

Her father picked up the paper, and her parents chattered over the election results in some distant country. Annabelle had tried to figure out the patterns of this morning prattle, but she hadn't yet discerned the meanings of words like "electorate" or "fiscal conservatism." And she wasn't learning much in school beyond biology and introductory calculus.

After breakfast, Annabelle went back to her room, got dressed, and grabbed her book bag. Her parents would find out that she ditched school — they always found out everything — and as a consequence, the TV set wouldn't turn on for a week. But if they realized ahead of time that she had no intention of going, they could talk her into it. For all their routines, they were experts at laying on the guilt.

As soon as she deviated from the path to school, though, it began. An older woman pulled her car up beside Annabelle. "Annabelle," she woman said out the window, "shouldn't you be on your way to school?" Annabelle stared at her, puffing as she continued hiking along the road. She didn't know the woman's name, but she was there every time Annabelle cut class. "Would you like a ride?" the woman asked, flashing flawless teeth. Annabelle shook her head. The car followed her for several blocks, but turned away before Annabelle made it downtown.

She had to walk. She knew that if she accepted a ride or tried to board the bus, it would just take her back to school. As it was, when she entered the thicket of daily commuters, each one paused as she passed, calling out, "Annabelle, shouldn't you be at school?" But they never touched her. She always imagined that one day, one of them would get sick of calling after her all the time, and would grab her by her shirt collar, hauling her the mile and a half back to school. It wasn't today, though. Annabelle searched the faces of the commuters until she spotted the one she wanted: her Uncle Lamar. She trotted over to him, and he stopped when he saw her. "Annabelle," he said, kneeling down, "shouldn't you be at school?"

She'd figured this out months ago, that people with closer ties, teachers, family members, would stop longer, would question her more intensely. She liked it, and it made her like Uncle Lamar all the more. "I'm not going to school today," she told him. "I'm following you to work."

"You shouldn't do that," he told her, brushing a stray hair behind her ear. "You should go to school."

"I know," she said. "But I'm following you to work instead."

Uncle Lamar sighed. "If you must." He picked up his pace so that Annabelle had to run to keep up with him, but other than that, he made no attempt to shake her. She followed him into a tall, gray building, through the marble lobby, and into the elevator. When they reached his office, she stood silently while he unloaded his briefcase, placing a calculator, a stack of magazines, and a small pink box with a black screen on his desk. Then he sat down, flipped on his computer screen, and began typing.

Annabelle rounded behind the desk to see what he was typing. An indecipherable spreadsheet stretched across the screen, rapidly filling with numbers with each touch of the keypad. "Uncle Lamar, what do you do?" she asked.

Uncle Lamar didn't pause in his typing. "I work, Annabelle."

"What kind of work do you do?"

"Data entry."

"What is that?" she asked.

He momentarily studied a paper on his desk and then resumed typing. "I take numbers from one place and put it in another place."

"That sounds boring."

"It's just work, Annabelle."

She pointed to the stack on his desk. "Can I look at your magazines?" she asked.

"If you must."

She opened the top magazine and frowned. It was faded and crumbling at the edges, but she could tell that it once held photographs of naked women. She wondered why. After all, Uncle Lamar had a wife at home, her Aunt Hedy. All the men in these offices had wives, she knew. She picked up the pink box. "What's this?" she asked.

"It's for music."

"Really?" she had a little record player in her room, but she'd never seen a music device like this. She pushed the big round button in the center, but nothing happened. She fiddled with the switch on the side, but still nothing. "I can't get it to work."

"That's because it's broken," he said.

"Then why do you have it in your briefcase?"

Another sigh. "It's just something people carry with them to work."

Annabelle placed the box back on the desk and pulled her backpack up on one shoulder. "Okay, Uncle Lamar. I'm going to school."

He looked up and smiled at her. "That's good, Annabelle. You should get a ride. You'll get there faster."

She nodded. "Thanks, Uncle Lamar."

She walked south, away from downtown, away from the residential areas, to the place where the paved road ended and weeds grew up through the tire tracks. If she was out late enough, she knew someone would drive out and pick her up before she'd even have a chance to get hungry. She came here on the weekends, sometimes, during her rare unstructured time, and stared out over the fields. The city was all manicured lawns and neatly swept streets, but here things were different. Thorny brambles reached up to catch the hem of her skirt. The grasses were tall and poked her as she sat on top of a slope. At the bottom of the slope sat the corpses of something that came before: the skeleton of an overturned car, bottles made of some green, weightless substance she didn't recognize, naked cinderblocks, and rusting pipes. She never asked anyone what was out here for fear they might clean it up. She enjoyed the mystery of it as much as the unpredictable movements of the bugs and birds.

The sun began to hang low in the sky, and Annabelle pulled her sweater tightly around her body. It wouldn't be much longer now. Her parents would scold her soon, would tell her how she'd amount to nothing in life if she didn't go to school. Then they would all eat a chili dinner with ice cream for dessert.

Then, Annabelle spotting something in the distance, a small figure casting a long shadow in the evening light. She cupped her hand over the top of her eyes, blocking out the sun just enough to realize that the figure was a child. She'd never seen another child on a Thursday, not outside of school. She left her book bag on the ground and sprinted down the hill, ignoring the weeds that scraped against her legs and trampling a few of her holy secret bottles along the way. When she had almost reached the figure, she stopped. He was a little taller than she was, his face gaunt and his sweatshirt stained with mud. He shivered, and she noticed that his sneakers were gray with damp. "Who are you?" she asked.

His sunken eyes widened. "You mean, you don't know my name?" he asked, a question that made Annabelle throw back her head and crow with laughter.

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Corpore Metal

(I think I hit a gusher on this one!)

Avak was nine and, in ancient times, he would have been one of those kids who had "Achievement seems to be below ability," and "Has difficultly completing assignments in a timely manner," written on his report cards all the time.

The teacher, Mr. Hsia, was showing the class holos of the walls of Great Zimbabwe. Avak raised his hand to ask, "Mr. Hsia? Why can't anyone go there to visit now?"

During the second as Avak asked the question, Hsia was already annotating his recording of Avak with extensive notes for later discussion with his peers.

"Well Avak, it's very complicated but maybe my answer will help. Mostly it's because it's against the laws of the Castellans. The reasons behind those laws would take a lot of time to explain and understand. Perhaps later in this week our class might have a discussion about that. But right now, we are forbidden to go there, or any of humanity's ancient cities because of the Environmental Repair Project. They are worried about contamination and disruption, that people might get hurt or they might mess up the work being done. Perhaps during recess you and I can talk more about it."

Avak appeared to settle for that, and Hsia knew it was unlikely Avak would remain after class to ask more questions about it.

Avak was prideful, stubborn and bright child and was not one to ask for help even when he clearly needed it. The Necessary Deception had to be especially careful around Avak and the other boys and girls in the first generation like him. Avak was completely unaware how much deliberation and analysis was devoted to keeping him and all the children in the dark. There was another interesting question from Rita about the lack of usable building stone in the Niger river basin but it was clear that the children were watching the clock more eagerly as the lesson wound on. As the bell rang, the relief and excitement on their faces was obvious.

Out in the play yard, Avak mostly kept to himself, staying away from games of four square, kickball, tag and disk. When he was younger, teachers would encourage him to play in games like this but, after learning more about his disposition, they later relented suggesting more solitary physical exercise instead. Now he seemed content to just run around, swing from jungle gyms, do cartwheels and practice with the collection of yo-yos he kept in his locker.

He was playing yoyo when Maurice wandered up to show him some comics.

"Avak! Hey, look at these Dad got me last weekend! New Fantastic Four!"

"Hey really?! Great!" Avak jammed his yoyo in his pocket and ran over.

"Yeah in this one, Silver Surfer has a big fight with Galactus and is banished to Earth!"

"Hey don't spoil it, man! I need to read that!"

Maurice was not all impressed with Avak's complaint, "Phpt! That's for blabbing to me about Ultraman yesterday. Here," he fumbled the books out of the bag, "Dad says these were made by two old guys, way back."

Avak stared at Kirby's art in wonder, "I wish I could draw like this. He's shooting like flames or jets out of his hands! I should be drawing superheroes all day." He read a few snippets of Lee's dialog. A few words he didn't understand but he could ask Mom or Dad about it later. If Maurice would let him borrow the comic, that is. "You gonna come over to my house tonight and bring these?"

"Sure, yeah."

Maurice sat on a bench to read as Avak backed up a bit so he wouldn't accidentally hit Maurice with his yo-yo practice. Hidden eyes and ears continued to watch all the children closely.

"Why do they always get stuck on Earth?" Maurice asked after a few minutes, completely missing Avak's flawless UFO pop.

"What?"

"Why do you think they always get stuck on the Earth? You know, the Autobots and Decepticons, Red Robot Ranger, the Third Doctor, Ultraman and Silver Surfer and stuff?"

Avak had to think about this a minute, letting his yo-yo drag in the dirt. He looked out at the busy street jammed with robot cars dropping people off and picking them up. "Dunno. Maybe it's 'cause the story writers are lazy or something. They have to make up less if they put it all in old times."

"I don't think so. I think it's 'cause they know we'll like the story better if we're in it."

"What do you mean? We aren't in any of those stories."

"No stupid! I mean people, everyone, I mean humans are in the stories—not like aliens and monsters and stuff. The story tellers know we'll like it better if we're in it."

"Yeah, I guess so." Avak wound his yo-yo.

It was an minor conversation but, he remembered it after school was over that day. In fact he remembered it years later.

And because the first generation of children, nearly a million of them scattered in settlements in modified asteroids throughout the Belt, was so critical to the Human Restoration Project so did the eyes and ears of the Necessary Deception record this conversation and file it in Avak's record.

"At the moment, they seem to think nothing of it but, I still say it was a mistake to expose the children to some of these ancient human entertainments, Given Avak's question in my class, mirrored by similar questions heard by other children, this pattern of inquiry is going to persist until one of them figures out what is really happening to them." it was the mind of "Mr. Hsia," at that moment, Mr. Hsia's body was pretending to work on new lessons in his classroom.

Of course, this was a pretense, just in case one of the children walked in on him unexpectedly.

"I think I agree at least in part with Fa," that was the mind of Avak's "mother" who was using Hsia's assumed first name, "Avak and his friend Maurice are both clever, imaginative children. Their collaboration could lead to something great one day. It will certainly lead to a lot of inconvenient curiosity."

"But it is essential that we make the deception as rich and distracting as possible to ensure that this first generation of children grow with healthy minds. That will in turn ensure that their children will grow in health too, Until the moment is right, they must not know that all of humanity vanished in the Great Abandonment a century ago. Until they are ready the children must not know their parents and many of the children around them are not human all. They must not know that we grew them from vats and genetic samples. They must not know they are orphans with no parents. If we wish to restore human culture in all it's diversity and strength, their history must be shown to them in all it's forms. This is paramount!" this was an instance of Gimel Nine Red, one of the Castellans.

They and other synthetics were all having a conference about this issue on the Network. The human children had absolutely no idea how each small nuance of their activities were being hashed over by the synthetics hidden among them.

The Castellans were the first machines that woke to sapience after humanity vanished a century ago. They woke to an Earth abandoned by humanity and as the victims of a kind of historical brain surgery. All records that might have explained humanity's disappearance had been completely and carefully deleted, as if humanity did not want any to follow where they went or to know what happened to them. The Castellans called themselves such because they viewed themselves as stewards or caretakers of the Earth, waiting and maintaining things until humanity returned, just as majordomos did the absence of their lords in Feudal Europe in ancient times. It was the Castellans that give the other robots sapience. It was the Castellans that give the machines of humanity a reason to go on. It was the Castellans that proposed that the machines set themselves to restoration of Earth's ruined ecosystem. It was the Castellans that proposed the Human Restoration Project.

The first generation of human children in this project, nearly one million of them, were unaware that their parents, that all the adults and many of the children around them were not human at all. They were fooled into thinking they were just another in the many thousands of generations before them, before Humanity's vanishing act.

After a century of waiting, the Castellans decided Humanity was never going to return and so decided to recreate them.

This was the world that Avak was born into.