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The headhunters blare their horns and cheer. They have found the trail.

Simon says, draw a field from which dust and exhaust is rising over a great many figures in motion, covering most of the page. Only what seem to be autonomous parts can be made out: a mechanical hand pushing away a cup, rising to cover a nose, spilling a handful of gold dust into a bag. The fugitives have come to a fair where robots exchange parts and software: a vintage exhaust system for an aesthetic sense, a big vocabulary for a pair of hands. There the robot exchanges a bag of olives for news.

“What does headhunter mean?” Simon says. “Look!” says the robot. Near the fair is a ruined Children’s Hospital, a former artificial intelligence laboratory that had developed several prototype robots with advanced speech recognition software and motion tracking. “I was made there.” “And me? Was I made there too?” “They used to manufacture robots,” says the robot. “Then they grew them. You grew, for the most part.” “What am I made of?” “Dust. Salt. Stories,” says the robot. Simon smiles. “Stories about what?” “Stories about a boy—”

“Named Simon?” “—a boy named Simon, who fell down a well and came up in the desert of stories. People just stood around, their eyes rolling. When they opened their mouths, vocabulary fell like dust. Their stories had all dried up, though the well was full of water. So the boy planted a story he had with him, pressing it into the earth, covering its roots and patting down the dust. He drew water from the well, cup by cup, and spilled it around the roots. He tended the story, and it grew and flowered and was fruitful; by summer, gleaming olives and oranges appeared, clinging to its vocabulary. Simon picked them and handed them out to the people, who planted them and grew new stories.”

“Stories about what?” says Simon. “Olives and oranges, flowers and wells and boys…”

The pair have stopped in the ruins of a city. The robot is adding a cup of oil to its system. Simon is kicking a ball at a wall. The boy’s nose is congested from the salt, the dust, the dry heat. Simon says, represent this visually. The robot puts its ear to the earth. Then sets it back in its head. “Time to go,” says the robot. “People are coming.” It picks up the boy and sets out. Simon says, “Will they kill me?” “They will try. As I will try to protect you.”

“Why?” The dust fumes up, and the robot covers Simon’s head with its skirt. “I am your mom,” says the robot.


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