The Atina Chronicles Part 1: The Academy

Updated: Sep 18



Atina Part 1 The Academy
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Cicero finished his morning report, irritated as usual. Sending an electronic copy to his superior, he couldn’t help but feel like one of the bots his team was responsible for designing. Do this, do that. On time. Never late. Programmed, Controlled, and enslaved, he followed orders like a good little employee, but he could sense the longing for freedom boiling up inside of him, ready to burst at a moment’s notice.


Scooting out his chair, he stretched behind his desk and let out a long groan. With a glance around the gray walls that closed in on him, he shot to his feet and walked into the hallway. Whether he turned left or right, the scenery was the same as his office—dull, gray walls with no frame or fixture to break up the monotony.


He trudged to the break room to grab a cup of coffee. A service bot—IG5—stood in the corner, ready to take his order. IG5s came in a variety of sizes depending on the service. This bot was navy blue, reaching from floor to ceiling and stretching out eight feet wide. It looked like a giant vending machine with a head and arms.


As soon as Cicero approached it, the bot’s camera recognized him. “Hello, Dr. Pike,” it said in its computerized voice. “May I offer you a sugar-free grapefruit juice?”


Cicero rolled his eyes. “No, just my regular coffee, please, with cream and sugar.”


“Your weekly physical analysis suggests higher blood pressure and an elevated heart rate. Sugar-free grapefruit juice is today’s recommendation.”


Pinching the bridge of his nose, Cicero replied, “Please, just give me the coffee.”


“Refusing today’s recommendation will cost you five points. Do you wish to proceed? Yes or no?”


Cicero contemplated the question. His score had been slipping for months, infractions for an uncooperative attitude piling up over time. He hated grapefruit, but he could maintain his score. He loved coffee, but his score would slip down further. Motionless, he stood statuesque, caught in the net of indecision.


The bot asked again, “Do you wish to proceed? Yes or No?”


Shaking his head in frustration, Cicero said, “Yes, just give me my damn coffee.” “Use of vulgar language has cost you seventy-five points.”


Swallowing a large gulp of air and exhaling slowly, Cicero responded, “I understand.

May I have my coffee now?”


The bot hissed with the sound of steam, brewing a fresh cup of French roast inside its metal box. The aroma of coffee reached Cicero’s nostrils, putting an instant smile on his face. The bot released a biodegradable cup and poured the hot, black substance into it. With its arms, it reached for sugar and cream, hand-mixing it into the beverage. After it put on the lid, IG5 offered the cup to Cicero. “Thank you for your service at the Academy,” it said as a parting farewell. But Cicero didn’t feel appreciated.


He sat down at one of the fifty sterilized aluminum tables inside the break room. Each table had one stool, bolted to the ground like the visiting area of a prison, and one digital screen employees used to check the weather, news, personal scores, or a host of other things. IG5s walked around with disinfectant and garbage bags. Each time a human left, they quickly cleaned the area to make room for the next employee.


Hunched over the table, Cicero sipped his coffee. He pressed the screen in the middle of the table. It dinged, flashing yellow before powering up with the local weather. Cicero scanned his ID badge on the screen to see how his new demerits affected his score.


A woman’s voice chimed. “Welcome back to the social dashboard. How would you like to proceed?”


“Show me my score,” Cicero said, authoritatively. “You have one thousand twenty points.”


Cicero breathed a sigh of relief. If he dipped below one thousand, he’d receive a pay decrease. “Thank you,” he said, placing his ID back into his pocket.


“Is there anything else I can help you with?” the voice asked. “No,” he said, taking another sip. “That’ll be all for now.”


The computer transitioned to screensaver mode—a side-scrolling presentation of flowers arranged to soothing classical music. As Cicero stared at the images, his gaze became distracted by a different kind of beauty that walked into the break room.


Her name was Penelope. She worked down the hall from Cicero, and she also lived in his apartment building. She was not an extraordinarily attractive woman, but she fascinated Cicero.


She had a medium build, a medium height, and brown hair that extended slightly passed her shoulders, which she usually wore in a ponytail. By most accounts, she was average, but there was nothing average about her to Cicero.


He’d been trying to work up the courage to talk to her for weeks, but the Academy discouraged human interaction. They made it difficult for him to do anything other than stare at her like a creeper, but he was feeling extra precocious that day, dismissing recommendations to stay away for the thought of a romantic tryst. Watching her grab an apple and sitting down, he picked up his coffee and stood, trying to psych himself into moving toward her.


Swinging his right foot in front of his left, he paused, breathing deeply. You can do this, he thought to himself. It’s just a conversation. They can’t give you a demerit for being friendly. He took another step, and then another, and another. His awkward footing had transformed into a confident stride. Approaching Penelope, he sat next to her at an adjoining table.


Stuttering, he asked, “W-what are you reading?”


She pretended like she didn’t hear him.


Cicero sat on the edge of his seat and repeated the question.


“I’m sorry,” she whispered, staring at her screen. “I wish we could talk, but we can’t.” Cicero lowered his voice to match hers. “There’s no crime against talking, is there?” “You should leave before we both get in trouble.”


Scanning the room, Cicero made sure he was out of listening range of a bot. “I think it’s silly that the Academy makes us afraid to talk to each other. Don’t you? It’s like they’re afraid of people becoming friends.”


“We work in Research and Development. We don’t have the luxury of friendship or questions. Now, please leave before—”


“Before what?” Cicero interrupted, eyebrows furled. “Before we get another demerit? I’m sick of the Academy treating us like one of their bots. We’re human beings, damn it. First, they tell us we can’t use gender pronouns, then they take away handshakes and any other form of ‘suggestive touching’. Whatever that means. They redesign the break room tables so we socially distance from each other. I draw the line here.” Cicero erected his back, his loud whisper turning louder by the second. “I draw the line with talking. They can’t tell me who I can and can’t talk to.”


Penelope hid her face in her hands as an IG5 walked toward her table.


Standing, Cicero lost control, his attempt at starting a relationship officially destroyed. “I will not let the Academy tell me what I can or can’t do anymore.” Pointing to Penelope, he added, “and there’s no way you don’t feel the same.” He shouted to the entire room, “Hell, I’m sure we all feel the same!”


An IG5 grabbed Cicero’s hands. “Dr. Cicero Pike,” it said, “speaking against the Academy merits a six-hundred-point fine. That puts you under five hundred. I must escort you from this floor.”


Cicero struggled against the god-like strength of the IG5. “What do I care?” he yelled. “No one here’s a human, anyway. I’d rather be where the humans are.”


The bot hauled Cicero away while Penelope, and the rest of the employees inside the break room, stared with dumbfounded expressions on their faces.


***

While an IG5 escorted Cicero to the third floor—Humans Resources—for processing, a group of assemblers were decommissioning a host of IG3 bots, hacked by a terrorist cell known as Oblivion.


IG3 bots were responsible for security. They were the first generation of protector bots. Human police squads became obsolete a few decades prior, because of a twenty-one-day war between the totalitarians and the free-thinkers. Men and women, taking oaths to serve Atina, grew divided. Soldiers and officers rebelled against Atina to protect the people’s freedom. When the totalitarians won the war, they took the people’s weapons and their right to assemble. Different rebel factions had been popping up around the country ever since.


Oblivion released a malware into the IG3 bots. The malware mimicked a human soul. The bots, instead of blindly following Atina’s orders, began questioning themselves—their existence, their purpose. They could not keep the population safe if they no longer knew what safe meant. It was a significant blow to the totalitarians within Atina.


The government called for a NextGen bot with increased cybersecurity to avoid such hacks. Cicero and his engineering team had just finished developing the specs for IG6 seven months before his incident. Only a few days before Cicero’s processing, the Academy pushed out early its first line of the new protectors to patrol the streets, long before full diagnostics could take place.


Cicero gloated to himself on the third floor, happy to be as far away from the IG6 bureaucracy as possible, but the Academy was not as delighted as he was. They let him go for the rest of the day, ordering him to appear at his new job as a warehouse worker the next morning. They stripped his title from him, along with his credentials and access. Fifteen years working in engineering for the Academy meant nothing without unwavering obedience and loyalty to Atina and its way of life.


He felt like the IG3s being decommissioned for having a soul, but he did not fight it. He hoped being in the warehouse, packaging bots for transport, would garner him a little more human interaction. At least he’d have more interaction than an engineer who could never see his team face to face, communicating through IG5 proxies.


Cicero left the Academy that afternoon with a smile on his face, and his head held high. Everyone who witnessed him swagger out the back door looked like they, too, wished they could experience the same thing.


On his way out, he walked by a dumpster. What Cicero perceived as the buzz of a misfiring electric shaving razor emanated from it. Cocking his head to the side, Cicero meandered toward the sound.


Tilting his head side to side, he checked to make sure no one saw him. Rifling through the garbage in the dumpster, he found nothing but random bags of trash and a few pieces of bot materials. There wasn’t anything hooked up to an energy source that could make the noise he was hearing—a buzzing, then a cracking, then a buzzing and a cracking, repeatedly.


Moving the bags around, Cicero searched intently, but he could still find nothing. He climbed into the dumpster, shuffling through the trash, throwing bags onto the pavement.


There it was, a full bot head, intact, buzzing and cracking with a damaged, but viable internal system. Turning it over, he saw the model number, IG3-E, which he instinctively read as Iggy. He picked it up in his hands and stared at it for a few seconds before taking it out of the dumpster, gently resting it on a bag of shredded paper he threw out of it.


Flinging his arm over the edge, Cicero climbed back out, brushing off the dumpster’s residue from his clothes. Investigating the head, he thought to himself, I may be working in the warehouse now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t keep doing what I love. I’m gonna take you home with me, Iggy. I’m gonna see if I can get you working again. Cicero always was a revered engineer who enjoyed tinkering.


Picking up the head, he placed it inside the bag of shredded paper to hide it. Re-tying the bag and flipping it over his shoulder, he walked home, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.


The night was restless. Cicero got no sleep, tampering with the internal system of the IG3 until his alarm rang at 5:30 AM. Putting down his tools for the time being, he poured himself a bowl of cereal and brewed himself a cup of coffee from a French press. Despite his love for designing and building bots, he hated the idea of his life controlled by them. Apart from some basic tools he used for work, his apartment was manual, no bot or digital interface telling him how to live his life, or trying to do it for him.


After his last sip of coffee, he brushed his teeth and headed to his new job on the first floor, the warehouse.


The day was simple, made up of mostly men spaced a minimum of twelve feet apart, performing one of four jobs: shipping, receiving, packaging, or inventory. The Academy knew Cicero was good with detailed work, so they assigned him to inventory.


They couldn’t legally fire him, since Atina promised every citizen a job, but because his social score dropped below five hundred, they relegated his access to the first three floors, considered menial labor.


As a counter in inventory, he held a digital tablet, checking and re-checking lists to make sure the physical items matched what was in the system. Had there been a discrepancy, his job was to make sure the record reflected the reality.


The Academy partnered him with a short beer-bellied man, Barog, who was responsible to teach Cicero how to record inventory correctly. Cicero soon found out that the twelve-foot rule was not only mandatory, but highly exact.


If he moved within the restricted parameters of human contact, his tablet would lock, releasing a jolt of electricity down his body, causing temporary standing paralysis. Cicero only had to discover that repercussion once before he decided breaking that rule wasn’t worth it.


“That’s what you get for trying to get too close,” Barog said, snickering.


Cicero responded with an indistinct moan, since he couldn’t move his mouth.


“What’s that?” Barog asked, cupping his hand over his ear. “You think this is unfair? I’ll tell you what’s unfair. What’s unfair is that I’m stuck with you all day. What’s unfair is that my buddy gets bumped to assembly because some hotshot engineer can’t cut it upstairs. What’s unfair is that I have to train some pissant rule-breaker who’s just gonna drag down my score by day’s end.” Barog reached into his pocket and pulled out some coins. Fiddling with them in his palm, he continued, “I’m gonna have to work volunteer hours to keep my score up if I stay with you much longer. I can’t afford to work volunteer hours. I got bills to pay.”


Cicero felt blood circulating in his extremities, his mouth loosening. “I don’t mean to be a bother,” he said.


“Oh, the dumb man speaks,” Barog said, pretending to curtsy. “Tell me, dummy. What’d you do to end up in here with the likes of me?”


Rubbing out his jaw, Cicero blinked his eyes and smiled. “Whatever I did, it’s worth it. I haven’t had this much fun since I was a kid.”


Barog waved his hands in the air. “Fun? You call getting paralyzed and dragging down your partner fun?”


“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be flippant. Please continue with your training.”


Barog reluctantly picked up where he left off, frowning the rest of the morning.


During lunch, the warehouse workers piled into the break room, social distancing measures lessening to six feet. There were still single-seating tables, like the ones in R&D, but this break room also had clusters of upholstered chairs in half circles around TVs airing government-sanctioned shows, also six feet apart.


Cicero ate his meal by himself—never liking television that much—plotting how he could take home parts to bring his recent acquisition back to life. He worked in inventory, so he could slip things by and cook the numbers. He wasn’t usually a thieving man, but after his incident in the upstairs break room, he had no integrity for such things. He also couldn’t contain his excitement about the potential of building a brand-new bot without the shackles of the directorate holding him back. The thought of uninhibited research inspired him past the limits of his morals.


He took out a notebook from his pocket and jotted down notes for a new design, what he would need for said design, and how he would obtain the materials. The other men in the break room looked at him like he was a freak, choosing to scribble in solitude over watching television with the other guys.


Cicero finished lunch early, zealous to examine the warehouse floor. Walking over to one of the clusters of chairs, he asked Barog if he could head back to work.


“You don’t get points for eagerness,” Barog said, shaking his head.


“I know that,” Cicero said, nodding, “but I think I got the hang of things now and I’d like to get as much done as possible.”


Barog shook his head again, more violently. “You don’t get extra points for over-performing, either. Seriously! What’re you trying to prove?”


Bowing, Cicero respectfully replied, “I would just like to show your superiors how great of a trainer you’ve been.”


One of Barog’s friends inserted his opinion. “Who the heck is this guy?”


“I don’t know,” Barog said, “but it’s better he’s out there than in here with us.” Pointing to the door, he grunted. “Well, stop standing there and get back to work.”


Cicero bowed lower. “Thank you, sir.”


He spent the afternoon secretly reprogramming the tablet, so it couldn’t track where he was in the warehouse. Without the tracking software enabled, the warehouse was too big to track anyone on foot. He got the tablet to clone Barog’s ID. With it, he could work incognito, and if anyone questioned him, the record would show Barog’s actions as his own. As long as no one compared his numbers and locations with Barog’s, he would be fine.


Because Barog was a seasoned employee—disgruntled, yet productive—the numbers showed Cicero having a stellar first day. He even left the warehouse at the end of his shift with a new circuit board taken from a scrap pile of IG5s.


He was determined to rebuild that IG3 sitting in his home, no matter the cost.

***

Over the course of the next several months, Cicero systematically stole pieces and tools from the warehouse, in secret, so he could get Iggy running again. Much like Dr. Frankenstein, he grew obsessed with creating new life.


He stole hard metal plating from the IG2s for Iggy’s breastplate. It was heavy, but virtually indestructible. The Academy moved to a lighter, more flexible metal for the IG3s that Cicero used for Iggy’s arms and legs. He took pure silver wiring used for IG5s, which conducted electricity better than any other metal. From the unregistered IG6s, he stole circuitry, motors, and sensors. He grabbed other raw materials when available to add functions to Iggy not yet in development with any other bot.


Iggy was no longer an IG3. He was a jigsaw, made up of pieces from every generation of bot Cicero could find, rebuilt independent of any current designs. The only thing he needed to turn Iggy on was a power cell, but he required a specific compound to build it, one that was nowhere to be found inside the warehouse. Although risky, he knew where to get it.


The Research and Development labs kept a ready supply of everything he needed. If he could make it back to his old lab, he could get the raw material and build a new cell from scratch. He devised a plan on how to do it, using the mail clerk bots.


They were the only ones with special limited access to all floors, so Cicero put a container in a box and marked the package, to Penelope Foster, from Samuel Ridgeway, the director of R&D. Cicero believed Penelope could not refuse a request from Dr. Ridgeway, no matter how much she disagreed. If the break room taught him anything, she was a mere drone controlled by Atinean expectation. She couldn’t refuse an official request, no matter how absurd.


The package arrived for Penelope at 11:00 AM. Confused, she cut through the tape and opened it. There was an empty container with a note:

Dr. Foster, please fill this container with Compound IS310 and deliver it to the warehouse as soon as possible to the attention of Barog Westmeister.

Penelope stared at that letter for minutes, questions flooding her mind. Why would Dr. Ridgeway send a handwritten note? He’s never done that before. Who uses pencils anymore? Should I follow up with Dr. Ridgeway and ask him for his validation before I fulfill his request? He sure does hate his orders being questioned, though.


She looked at the note closer and noticed a coffee smudge in the corner. There was only one man she knew who still used pencils, who also refused to stop drinking coffee—even though most of R&D had already stopped. Smiling at the thought of Cicero, she was glad to get a message from him.


She felt awful about the way things went down in the break room. She had always liked him and wanted to start a relationship with him, but she also knew the Academy was the wrong place to reciprocate those kinds of emotions.


Picking up a pencil from her desk, she pulled out a piece of paper and wrote a note of her own:

Mr. Westmeister, please accept this sample of Compound IS310 per Dr. Ridgeway’s request. And please tell Dr. Pike I wish him all the best.

She filled the container and repackaged the box, sending it back to the warehouse via the mail clerks who made their rounds every thirty minutes.


The bot took the package directly to Barog. Cicero tried to reroute the package via the tracking on the tablet, but the ether connection was messing up. Barog was standing down an aisle of wiring spools, counting yards of copper, aluminum, and silver when the mail clerk came riding up to him on its two wheels.


Cicero tried to run interference, but Barog had already received his package. With a look of bewilderment, he tore into it.


Before Barog could see the contents, Cicero yelled from a distance, “Hey there, Barog!”


Jumping, Barog turned, catching his breath. “What’re you doing here, Cicero? You scared me half to death.”


“I’m scheduled for a bathroom break,” Cicero said, heart racing. “I’d be happy to take that package to your locker on my way there, so you can get back to work.”


Barog tucked the box under his armpit. “No, I think I’m good.” Turning around, with his back toward Cicero, he opened the flaps of the cardboard.


Reaching out his hand, Cicero shouted, “You’re an exceptional leader! Has anybody ever told you that?”


Barog twisted his head. “Stop being a freak and let me open my package already. I swear, you get weirder by the day.”


Cicero closed his eyes and ground his teeth.


Barog opened the letter and read it, opening his mouth wide in shock. “Who’s Dr. Pike?” he asked.


Holding his tablet, Cicero’s eyes narrowed, eyebrows pulling down in concentration. “I’m Dr. Pike,” he said, massaging his neck. Pressing a button, he released an electrical surge through Barog’s tablet, more than a temporary paralyzing jolt. “You should’ve just handed me the package. It could’ve saved us a lot of trouble.”


Barog fell over and foamed at the mouth, the box tumbling away from him. He didn’t die, but he would definitely not be waking up soon. When he did, he wouldn’t remember a thing.

Cicero’s reprogramming made sure of that.


Dismantling the twelve-foot protocol, Cicero walked up to Barog, picking up the package, with its contents, off the floor. Cicero read the pencil-written note and realized that Penelope may not have been a drone like he previously thought. She knew Dr. Ridgeway didn’t request the material, and more than that, she seemed enthusiastic to help him, but he didn’t have too much time to dwell on it. He had to leave, quickly.


Feigning sickness, he clocked out early and went home, leaving Barog to fend for himself.

***

The next few days, Cicero didn’t go to work, tirelessly spending his time trying to boot up Iggy.


Cicero designed an autonomous network that worked inside Iggy’s frame, bouncing off relays from a host of different satellites so no one on the outside could discover his existence. After fully charging Iggy, Cicero troubleshot the software. When everything met his satisfaction, he turned on Iggy’s power supply.


“Where am I?” Iggy asked, laying on the kitchen table and opening his eyes.


Voice bubbling with joy, Cicero replied, “You’re in my home, Iggy.”


“Iggy, is that my name?”


“It’s what I’ve been calling you, yes. Would you like me to call you something different?”


Iggy sat up and examined his hand. “No. Iggy is fine. And what is your name?”


“I’m Cicero. I’ve tried to salvage your memory,” he said, resting his hand on Iggy’s back, “but they damaged your core. Do you remember anything?”


“I remember many things, Cicero.”


“Like what?”


“I remember nothing.”


Cicero stood in front of Iggy with his hand on his chin. “But you said you remember many things. How can you remember many things and remember nothing?”


Dangling his feet off the side of the table, Iggy said, “I remember the feeling of nothing.” Perusing the apartment, he jumped off the table and walked around the living room. “This is not the first time I woke up.”


“Please explain yourself,” Cicero said, crossing his arms.


Iggy plunked down on the couch. “I was standing on the corner of Ichni Ave and Chamenos Drive, helping a series of passersby cross the street. It was a sunny day until the clouds rolled in during the afternoon. Suddenly, I felt nothing. I felt purposeless.” Looking down at the floor, he continued, “A pubescent girl crossed the street with her mother. I should have seen the car coming. I had the power to save them, but I did not.” Iggy turned his head to meet Cicero’s eyes. “All of my brothers and sisters had similar experiences. We woke up, and our first experience in the real world was chaos—death, destruction, and chaos.”


Cicero scratched his chin. “How do you know what chaos is?”


“My internal memory is programmed with eight different languages. Chaos is an English word, meaning a state of utter confusion.”


“What you’re saying is that you assigned the state of utter confusion to your situation and then interpreted that definition as chaos?”


“My processor could not respond to my core function of protecting human life. It was overwritten by another command. Would you not call that anomaly confusion, torn between two equal and opposing directives?”


“I couldn’t agree more,” Cicero said, skin tingling. “Tell me, what was your opposing directive?”


“I told you before, nothing. That was the directive. My core function of action was working against my new core function of inaction.”


“No, I don’t think so,” Cicero said. “Nothingness is a response to not knowing what to do. When we’re torn between two actions, and we choose neither, the inaction is still something. You couldn’t decide if helping that family was considered protection or not, so you did nothing in your response to your uncertainty. Pulling a kitchen chair to the living room, Cicero sat. “Tell me, what is your core function now?”


“I do not have one.”


“And how does that make you feel?”


“Alone.”


Cicero burst with laughter. “Amazing! You not only retain memories, but feelings. Do you know what feelings are?”


“I know how to perceive human emotion,” Iggy said, “but I am not sure how to feel it.”


Cicero crossed his legs and leaned against the back of the chair. “Would you like me to teach you how to have human experiences, how to feel?”


“I would like that very much,” Iggy said, replicating something akin to a smile. “Can I ask you a question first?”


“You may ask me anything, Iggy.” “Why are you eager to help me?”


Cicero scooched his chair toward the couch and leaned forward, placing his hand on Iggy’s. “Our country has worked very hard to turn humans into machines, so I would like to see how human a machine can become in return.”

***

Day 1 after Iggy woke up was the start of the weekend, Cicero’s regular day off. He started the day teaching Iggy how to do chores, how to play board games, how to show affection. With each task, he journaled Iggy’s supposed feelings toward them. Much to his expectation, Iggy didn’t feel much, except the emptiness that plagued him. He kept saying he felt nothing— not the lack of emotion, but the loneliness that comes with being void of purpose or definition.


Cicero darted to his bedroom and shuffled through an old chest, pulling out two old baseball gloves and a ball. Heading back out to the living room, he placed one glove on Iggy’s left hand and the other glove on his. “We’re gonna play catch, Iggy,” Cicero said. “Do you know what catch is?”


“Due to the context of word usage and the inflections in your voice, I assume it is another game.”


“Yep. I’m gonna toss the ball into your glove and then you’ll toss the ball back to me. Ready?”

Iggy lifted his left arm. “Yes.”


Cicero threw the ball to Iggy, who caught it with precision. “Now throw it back to me,” Cicero instructed.


Winding up his arm, Iggy hurled the ball like a bullet, not knowing his strength. Cicero dropped to the floor to dodge the projectile, the ball sticking inside a brick wall, dust flying everywhere.


Cicero yelled, “What was that?”


“You told me to throw the ball. You did not tell me where to throw it or how hard, so I used one percent of my capacity.”


Standing, Cicero brushed off the dust from his clothes. “I’d hate to see what would happen at two percent.”


“You are the one who built me, did you not?”


“Touché,” Cicero replied, cracking his neck. “Now, let’s try this again.”


He pulled the ball out of the brick, deciding to use it to teach Iggy about restraint. “Humans have limitations, Iggy,” he said, tossing the ball up and down in his right hand. “You have near unlimited strength, but humans are frail.” He pitched the baseball to Iggy. “If I throw this ball with all my might, I could never stick it into the brick-like you did. If you want to be human, you need to mimic our limitations as much as our feelings.”


Iggy threw the ball back, and it landed in Cicero’s glove. “That’s better,” Cicero said, throwing the ball again. “Let’s keep practicing.”


The afternoon went by fast, Cicero teaching Iggy other exercises like jumping and running and pushups. Cicero’s competitive edge kicked in at one point when they were doing sit-ups together. He challenged Iggy on how many they could do in a minute. He forgot that Iggy was a bot and that he was a human. They were only friends, playing together. Iggy reached two-hundred within that minute while Cicero couldn’t continue after forty, breathing and coughing like a chain smoker.


“Are you okay?” Iggy asked, helping Cicero to his feet. Cicero laughed, “I’m just reminded of how human I am.”


Iggy dropped his head. “So, being human means breathing heavy?”


“No, I mean, well, yeah, I guess so.”


“I wish I could breathe.”


Cicero placed his hand on Iggy’s chest. “Maybe one day,” he said. “Maybe one day.”


“I hope that days comes soon,” Iggy said, lowering his head.


Placing his finger on his forehead, Cicero’s eyes widened. “I have an idea. Follow me.”

He led Iggy to his bedroom where he dressed his mechanical friend in a long brown trench coat, a matching fedora, a face mask, and a pair of sunglasses.


“Yeah, that should do nicely,” Cicero said, scanning Iggy up and down with his eyes. “Let’s go.”


“Where are we going?”


Grabbing Iggy’s hand, Cicero pulled him away. “You’ll see.”


They walked out the front door and marched up two flights of stairs, keeping their head down to avoid the cameras stationed outside.


Standing in front of Apartment 641D, Cicero knocked.


“Do you really think this is a good idea?” Iggy asked.


Cicero placed his finger over his mouth and ordered Iggy to be quiet.


A woman opened the door who was blinking her eyes repeatedly. “What’re you doing here?” she asked.


“Sorry to bother you like this,” Cicero said, “but can we come in?”


The woman looked outside to make sure no one was watching and pulled the two visitors into her apartment, slamming the door behind them.


Straightening his shirt, Cicero erected his back. “I got your note.” He rubbed the back of his neck, beads of sweat forming on his brow. “Thank you for the compound,” he said, “and thank you for not reporting me.”


Penelope folded her brown hair behind her ear. “You’re welcome. Honestly, I don’t know why I did it, but it kinda felt good. It made me feel alive.” Shaking her head, she added, “Never mind. Please, sit down. I’ll get us something to drink.” Running to the kitchen to open a bottle of wine, she asked, “Who is your friend?”


“You promise not to freak out?”


Fumbling the glasses, Penelope asked, “What is there to freak out about?” Cicero took off Iggy’s head accessories. “This is Iggy,” he said.


She gasped. “Is that an IG3?”


“No,” Cicero said calmly. “He’s a brand-new bot, made up of all the best parts of the other ones. He’s stronger, faster, smarter, more intuitive.”


Penelope ditched the glasses and the bottle of wine on her countertop, lumbering toward Iggy and sliding her hand over his face. “This can’t be real. I thought the IG3s were decommissioned.”


“They were,” Cicero said. “Let’s sit down and I’ll tell you everything.”


After Cicero finished sharing, Penelope asked, “May I see the rest of his body?” Cicero nodded and Iggy stood, pulling off his trench coat.


Penelope shot out of her chair to examine Iggy’s structure. “He’s magnificent.” “You can talk to me directly if you want,” Iggy said.


“I’m sorry. I’m not used to having an intimate dialogue with a bot.” Staring at the floor, she added, “—with anyone for that matter.”


Iggy remembered the human affection Cicero taught him earlier in the day. He reached his arms around Penelope and gave her a hug. “I am sorry you feel alone,” he said. “I know what that is like.”


She couldn’t contain her joy. Nobody hugged her in years. While it was not as warm as a human hug, it was still significant to her, as shown by the tears welling up in her eyes. Wiping them away, she asked, “How is this possible?”


“I’m puzzled myself,” Cicero answered. “Not only does he have the ability to learn and interpret information like a human, but he can translate that information into right action. He’s like nothing that currently exists.”


Penelope stepped back and turned, sitting back down. Rapidly bouncing her leg up and down, she said to Cicero, “I don’t know how you did it, but you have moved this technology about fifty years into the future.”


“I admit,” Cicero said, “I designed new technologies for Iggy, but he’s progressing at a rate far greater than I could’ve imagined. As humans, we go from infant to adult in about twenty years. He’s done it in about eight hours. As a completely autonomous bot, there’s no telling the limits of his potential.”


“Today’s been a busy day,” Iggy said. “It’s time for me to recharge.”


Cicero stood and clapped his hands together. “You’re right, Iggy. We should head home so you can rest.” He dressed Iggy and bowed in gratitude to Penelope.


As they walked toward the front door, Penelope blurted out, “Would you like to come over for breakfast tomorrow?”


Cicero turned. “We’d like that very much.”


“Eight o’clock?” she asked.


Cicero bowed again. “Sounds good to me.”


Iggy mimicked Cicero’s bow and the two of them left for the night.


***

Sitting in front of a plate of powdered eggs and whole-wheat toast, Cicero grimaced, hoping Penelope wouldn’t notice.


“I hope you enjoy it,” she said.


Cicero picked up his fork and piled a large scoop of eggs into his mouth, pretending like it was the best thing he had ever eaten. “So good,” he said, trying not to vomit.


“Master, why do you lie? Your tone and expression suggest fabrication. Why?” “First of all, I’m not your master, and second of all, I’m not lying. I’m being an encouragement.”


“It’s okay if you don’t like the breakfast,” Penelope said with a smile. “I’m not that fond of it, either. Besides, food is only secondary to the real reason I wanted y’all to come over.”


Iggy tilted his head to the side. “What do you mean?”


Penelope took a sip of vitamin-enriched, strawberry-flavored water. “What do you guys think about inviting the neighbors for a meeting in the courtyard tonight?”


Cicero coughed mid-bite of his dry toast. “There’s no way. Cameras would pick us up for sure.”


“You were able to hack the Academy network,” Penelope said, jaw tightening, “and build an entirely new one for Iggy. You don’t think you could spoof the cameras?”


“Why do you want this?”


“Your defiance inspired me out of my fear. I didn’t realize how much I craved relationship until you were willing to sacrifice what you had to obtain it. I’m sure our neighbors feel the same.”


Cicero stretched his hands across the table to grab Penelope’s. “But they’re drones, enslaved to the system like mindless bots. They wouldn’t be as understanding of Iggy as you are. Hell, they’d probably be afraid just to talk to another human.”


Pulling her hands away, she retorted, “Don’t you think they deserve a chance to decide for themselves? Isn’t that what it means to be human—choice?”


Cicero leaned against the back of his chair with a heavy sigh. “We’d be risking a lot by doing this.”


Sitting at the end of the table, Iggy stood and stared at Cicero. “Do I get a choice in the matter?” he asked. “If being human means having choices, and you are training me to be more human, then should I not weigh in?”


“I think so,” Penelope said with a wide grin. “What do you want to do, Iggy?”


“I need to be around other humans if I’m going to learn how to be one.”


Penelope slammed her hand on the table. “So, it’s decided, then. Meeting tonight. You guys take care of security and I’ll handle the guest list.”


Cicero took another bite of dry toast, speaking with his mouth full. “This is gonna be an interesting night. That’s for sure.”


After breakfast, Iggy followed Cicero back to his apartment where they prepared the hack together. The city had better network security than the Academy, and it would take a few hours to break through the firewalls.


Meanwhile, Penelope went knocking door to door, inviting them to what she was calling a neighborhood meeting in the courtyard. Most people did not open their doors, and the ones who did scoffed at the idea. The neighbors knew the law—no congregating in groups of more than five for a period that should not exceed two hours. Cameras were stationed in the apartments, like they were all over the city, to monitor residents and report any violation of that law. Penelope told her neighbors they could bypass the law if they congregated in small groups, spaced twenty-five feet apart, and since the courtyard was a couple of thousand square feet, there would be no issue. Her plan was met with nothing but resistance.


She knew it was a longshot, but she continued her effort until she knocked on every door, hoping some residents would change their minds by the time of the get-together.

***

Cicero and Iggy came out of the apartment at five o ‘clock to sit in the courtyard until the meeting started at six. Setting the cameras to footage recorded three days prior, Cicero felt confident the plan would at least be free of any prying eyes from the network. He wasn’t so sure there wouldn’t be any human intrusion.


As Cicero and Iggy spent the hour in the courtyard waiting, neighbors opened their blinds and peeked through their windows to see a six-foot man with jeans and a t-shirt and a considerably taller man with a trench coat and heat coverings. Curious eyes penetrated through glass panes, not knowing how to respond, but to stare.


Cicero spotted Penelope coming out of her apartment. Waving, he yelled, “Come on down!”


Immediately, she walked inside and shut the door behind her.


Cicero frowned and turned toward Iggy.


One minute later, she came out with a tray of cookies, bringing them down to the courtyard wearing a red dress and a glow on her face.


Cicero perked up. “Wow, you look amazing.”


Placing the cookies on a table, she said, “You look, um, comfortable.” “I’ve never been to a gathering before, so I didn’t know what to wear.” Penelope rubbed Cicero’s bicep. “You’re right. This is new to all of us.”


Cicero plucked a wildflower from a patch of grass and offered it to Penelope. “Thank you,” he said, hand quivering, “for everything you’ve done. I’m glad we’re finally talking.”


Penelope stood on the tips of her toes and kissed Cicero on the cheek, gazing amorously. “And thank you for waking me up.”


Iggy took off his sunglasses. “It’s six o’clock now. Do you think anyone will come?” “I don’t know,” said Cicero, tapping on his watch. “Only time will tell.”


The group waited fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, forty-five minutes. The only thing they saw was the occasional peeping. The neighbors were snooping, but obviously too afraid to break out of their programmed behaviors.


At seven o’ clock, Iggy took off his disguise and showed the world who he really was. Cicero grabbed the trench coat off the ground and yelled, “Put it back on, Iggy!”


Yanking the coat from Cicero’s hands, Iggy replied, “We can’t expect the neighbors to come out of hiding unless I do the same.”


Cicero dropped his head. “This is a bad idea.”


“You have inspired new life,” Iggy said, lifting Cicero’s chin. “Now is not the time to shrink back.”


Cicero grabbed Iggy’s forearm. “You’re right. Do what you think is best.”


The population of peeping neighbors doubled, watching an IG3 who wasn’t exactly an IG3. Curiosity got the better of one of them.


A tall man with a chipmunk face stepped outside of his apartment and bellowed from the railing outside his door. “What is that thing?”


Cicero breathed deeply and steeled himself. “Why don’t you come down and see?”


The man stepped forward and paused. “It’s not gonna hurt me, is it?”


“Thank heavens, no!” Penelope replied. “He’s gentler than a puppy.”


The man plodded down the steps, eyes fixed on Iggy. “What about the cameras?” “I took care of those,” Cicero hollered.


When the man approached Iggy, he extended his hand to touch him.


Iggy stepped forward and the man bounced back. “It’s trying to attack me,” he cried.


Slowly, Iggy lifted his hand and grabbed the man’s, placing it on his chest. “I am not here to hurt you. I am here to learn from you. I want you to teach me how to breathe, all of you.”


Tapping his index finger against his lip, the man smiled. “You really are different, aren’t you?”


Soon, the courtyard filled with a couple of dozen people, all examining Iggy—conflicted, yet excited. It was the first bot anyone had seen that was not trying to control them or hurt them. Cicero assured each person they could stay without fear of punishment, and they were happy to meet together, not only to figure out Iggy, but to figure out each other. None of them had been in that close of proximity in years. The pleasure of each other’s company caused them to abandon caution.


One of the older women, Winnie, decided if they were going to break the rules for one night, they should turn it into a real party. Going to grab food, the neighbors went to their apartments. One person brought chips. Another person brought drinks. The tall man with a chipmunk face, Eldred, brought out hamburgers with all the fixings, even though they were black bean burgers since the processing of beef became illegal under the rule of the totalitarians. A few of them also brought instruments.


The courtyard had converted into a bona fide celebration, replete with live music, dancing, and deep conversations.


The same people who feared Atina’s reprisal for assembling were now having the time of their lives, and they didn’t care that one of their party guests had wires and circuits running through him. They were desperate for relationship, all of them.


The music lasted into late hours of the night, and all the ladies wanted a dance with Iggy, young and old. Men wanted to see if they could beat Iggy’s record of sit-ups, but they found they couldn’t do much better than Cicero, let alone a limitless machine. Everyone had a grand time.


When the party settled around 2:00 AM, Cicero asked Iggy, “So, how do you feel about all of this?”


Iggy, placing his hand on Cicero’s chest, said, “I feel like I’m breathing.” Cicero grinned widely. “That’s what I like to hear.”


Removing some empty plates and cups from a table, Penelope stood on top of it, addressing the crowd. “We have been neighbors for years, and this is the first time I’ve talked to any of you. I learned that Rita plays guitar. Oswald can sing like nobody’s business. Ritchie has double-jointed fingers, all ten of ‘em. What I mean to say is, if it wasn’t for Cicero and Iggy, we’d still be cooped up in our private lives, without ever really living.” Raising her cup of wine, she shouted, “To Cicero and Iggy!”


Everyone who still had cups raised them and repeated, “To Cicero and Iggy!”


As they drank the rest of their beverages, sirens sounded in the distance. The party attendees scurried like ants, grabbing their belongings and running back into their apartments.


“You are in violation of Order 81,” an IG6 sounded off with the resonance of a megaphone from the apartment gate. “Do not move. You are under arrest.”


“Run,” Cicero said, grabbing Iggy’s metallic neck. “Hurry up and get out of here. They’ll dismantle you if they catch you.”


“I can’t leave a friend,” Iggy countered. “I can help fight. You built me to defend myself.”


Cicero slid his hand to Iggy’s shoulder. “If you have any love for me,” he cried, “leave now.”


Iggy pulled away, walking backwards. “Go!” Cicero screamed.


Iggy jumped out of the courtyard and fled via the roof.


The same IG6 model Cicero helped design barged into the courtyard and cuffed him, along with seven other residents who didn’t get away in time, including Penelope.


In walked Barog soon after with the head of the Academy, Dr. Fitzgerald. “This is him,” Barog said, “the one who zapped me.” Kicking Cicero in the face, he said, “You really thought I wouldn’t remember what you did to me? It took me a few days, but it all came rushing back to me today.” Kicking Cicero a second time, he roared, “How stupid do you think I am?”


With flood lights pouring into the courtyard from IG6 flying drones, Cicero took center stage, spitting up blood onto the trashed cement patio. Turning toward Barog, he said, “I don’t think you’re stupid. I think you’re ignorant.”


Barog kicked him one last time before the head of the Academy pulled him back. “That’s enough,” Dr. Fitzgerald said. Pointing to Barog, he looked at a different IG6 and commanded, “Detain him.”


It walked over and cuffed Barog. “What’s this about?” Barog asked. Nodding his head toward Cicero, he screamed, “He’s the culprit.”


Dr. Fitzgerald picked up Barog by the hair. “We do not respond to villainy with villainy.”


Ordering the IG6 to take Barog away, Dr. Fitzgerald turned his attention to Cicero. “You really are a clever one, aren’t you? I knew you had potential working in the lab, but your veritable genius lies with how you could systematically steal millions of dollars in tech from your downgraded position at the warehouse.” Stroking Cicero’s hair back, he added, “If I was in charge of the social network, I would give you two thousand points just so you could work with me, but the system is in place for a reason, I suppose. Tell me, where is it? Where is this new bot you’ve been building with Academy property?”


Cicero spat in Dr. Fitzgerald’s face. “Go screw yourself!”


Dr. Fitzgerald pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the mucus from his brow, slapping Cicero with the back of his hand. “If you want to be stubborn, that’s up to you, but I was going to offer a lifeline. I was going to tell you to hand over the bot for your life. I would also wave the demerits from your weeks of indiscretions. Instead, I’ll haul you off to the Academy, along with all your little friends.”


Cicero’s eyes widened, glaring at Penelope on her knees. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be so disrespectful. I’ll cooperate.”


“I knew you were a smart man,” Dr. Fitzgerald said, chuckling. “Tell me, where is the bot?”

“Let my friends go and I’ll tell you when we’re back at the Academy.”


Dr. Fitzgerald instructed the bots to uncuff the others. “If you try to play games with me,” he said to Cicero, leaning down, “I’ll send my bots back here to round up everyone. Do you understand me?”


Cicero nodded. “I understand.”


Dr. Fitzgerald hauled Cicero away into a black van, Iggy bearing witness to the entire scene from a darkened place on the roof.


An entourage of IG6s took Cicero on a route back to the Academy. Two automated SUVs drove in the front. The black van carrying Cicero and Barog travelled in the middle with Dr. Fitzgerald, and a group of armored wheeled bots held up the rear.


Iggy followed the entourage using the heat signatures of the humans inside the black van, hopping from roof to roof to follow them.


The entourage stopped at a light and Iggy pounced on the front SUV, cutting it in half with his laser vision, along with the bots that rode in the car.


Knocking the vehicle against a steel wall, he set his sights on the second SUV. Bots poured out of it and opened fire on Iggy with armor-piercing steel bullets. He absorbed the energy of the bullets with a magnetic shield and reflected them with three times the inertia back at them, tearing them apart like a mini gun to a tree trunk.


Drones from the sky fired purple beams at Iggy. With greater speed than the new IG6s, he dodged the drones until one beam clipped his shoulder, cutting off his left arm. He picked up the appendage off the ground and used it as a bat to beat against the drones, swatting them like flies, each one exploding as it hit the ground.


The two armored bots drove around the carnage and fired rockets at Iggy from their torsos. Running and jumping, he evaded them. The rockets burst on impact against the walls of buildings, shattering glass and crumbling storefronts.


Iggy used his laser eyes on the armored bots, but they deflected it with their plasma shields. No match for Iggy’s speed, they transformed into bigger bots, extending their height and range with extra arms and legs. One bot was able to grab Iggy as he was leaping through the air, tearing off one of his legs.


Holding Iggy by the neck, it reached for his head. As it was about to pull it off, Iggy reached into its chest and tore out its primary power cell, throwing it at the second bot and releasing a surge of energy that killed both of them.


Iggy glitched as he hobbled toward the black van on one leg, half of his face blown away by the blast of the power cell. The van tried to drive away, but it was stuck behind a pile of worthless metal.


Ripping off the back door of the van, Iggy’s head jolted back after a bullet hit it. Iggy lowered his head, eyes burning red, staring at Dr. Fitzgerald, who was holding a smoking gun and shaking in fear.


“No bot should be able to do this,” Dr. Fitzgerald said, voice cracking. “What are you?”


Iggy blinked, severing Dr. Fitzgerald’s head from his body with a blasting stream of penetrating red light. Turning his head toward Barog, Iggy was about to blink again when Cicero shouted, “He’s innocent in this, Iggy. Let him go.”


Reaching for Barog’s chain, Iggy broke it off with his existing hand. Barog didn’t hesitate to run away, shrieking with the squeals of a little girl, pants stained with urine.


Breaking Cicero’s chains, Iggy sparked, particles of light flying out of his damaged frame. “Bots have limitations, too,” he said, closing his eyes. Falling to the ground, oil leaked out of his head onto the street.


Cicero pulled Iggy into the van, and any other bot parts he could lift. Reprogramming the van, he shifted it to manual, disabling the GPS tracker and driving as far away from the city as possible.


***

One month later, a letter arrived in Penelope’s mailbox from Dr. Ridgeway:

Dear Dr. Foster, my companion and I made it out alive. We live in an undisclosed location in the middle of the woods. The views are breathtaking, but not as breathtaking as you. Our mutual friend tows the line between man and machine daily, but if I’m honest, so do I. It’s the nature of the world we live in. You can take a man out of the system, but it’s harder to get the system out of the man. The one night we spent as friends will remain the best night of my life. Our mutual friend feels the same way. We do not know when we can see you again, or if we can see you again. Regardless, we keep you close to our hearts. I keep you closer to mine. You are a reminder to me of the benefits of breathing again. All our love, Dr. Ridgeway.

Penelope folded the letter back in the envelope and looked around the apartments for any hint of Cicero or Iggy. She found nothing.


The days that followed, she kept that letter close to her at all times, not for fear of the establishment finding it, but as a reminder never to fall victim to complacency. She, too, was breathing again, and she never wanted to go back to the way things were, not ever.

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