Centurion Child

"I submitted the very first short story I’ve ever written to the Sword and Laser Anthology. They picked 20 out of approximately 1000 submitted and mine didn’t make the cut."
"I’m not upset. It was a good exercise and I had fun writing my sci-fi story. If you’d like to read it you can pick up a copy [at http://centurionchild.tumblr.com/]. Go ahead and share it to your heart’s content but be sure to credit it to me if you do." - Matt Ingrouille

Centurion Child

by Matt Ingrouille

The starship had landed over three hours ago but one child remained on board, staring out of the window at the barren landscape beyond the dock before diving under his seat.

“How long’s he been there like that?”

The child crawled under the seat and clutched his toy rocket and a blanket. Sister Ivy placed a hand on her old friend’s shoulder. “Ever since the other kids left,” she answered. “He just crawled under there and didn’t move a muscle afterwards. Anytime anyone approaches he just stiffens up and grunts.”

The old man looked down at his feet as his shuffled them and shifted his weight from side to side. “I really don’t think I’m the right one for the job, Ivy, not at my age.”

Sister Ivy gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Oh, come on Pat. It might be good for you. You spend too much time by yourself and he might be of help in your shop.”

He looked towards the boy and shook his head.

“It won’t be for long,” Ivy promised. “All the parents will be back after the noise settles down.”

“How long?”

“A month. Maybe two? He’s seven years old. The younger kids will stay a little longer, I expect but this one shouldn’t be with us long.”

He sighed and made his way slowly down the passenger aisle towards the boy. As he approached, the boy stiffened up and clutched the blanket tighter. The old guy bent his aging knees and squatted down beside the frightened boy. “How do, chappie?”

The boy grunted and pushed his way further under the seat.

“What’s his name, then?”.

“Cal,” Sister Ivy replied

He lowered his head a little more, careful not to startle the young man. “Come on, Cal. How’s about a nice cup of tea, hmm?”

Cal slowly turned his head towards the old man and softly spoke. “Cuppa?” he asked.

“Yeah, that’s right. A nice warm cuppa.”

“Cuppa,” Cal repeated with a smile. “Cuppa, cuppa, cuppa…”

Across the barren desert from where the shipyard stood the land was a lot more fertile. Sarnia was a small moon that a low population of fifteen thousand people had spread itself over. The area where the old man lived was home to thousands of acres of woodland and arable land. Cal had never left Zeus before and was unsure of where to look next. Everything was so green and fresh. They had left the starship behind and he seemed more relaxed in the seat of the train. They were on their way to a small village that he was to call home for the next little while.

“Are you like…a dad?” he asked on the ride over.

“Hmm, let’s see now.” Cal kept staring out the window. “I’ll be taking care of you while your parents can’t. A guardian, I suppose. My name’s Patrick but you can call me Pat if you like.”

“Mmmk,” Cal yawned. The train began to slow down. “Father Patrick, Father Patrick!”

“Eh? Who?”

“What’s that, Father Patrick?” Cal shouted pointing at a collection of small homes.

“Oh that? That’s where I live. Oh, and enough of this Father Patrick stuff, ok? You make me sound like a damn priest. Just Pat, ok?”

“Uh huh,” Cal nodded as he squinted out the window trying to get a clear image of what he was seeing.

From the small train station they took a fifteen minute walk in silence to a small neighbourhood with a handful of houses arranged in a cul de sac.

“Which one’s your’s, Father Patrick?” Cal asked after they arrived.

Father Patrick smiled and shook his head. “That one over there,” he said pointing to the one at the top of the curve. As they arrived Father Patrick held the door to the little cottage open for Cal who stood sheepishly on the front porch. “Come on in,” Father Patrick encouraged him. “It’s ok, mate. You’re home now.” He smiled. Cal slowly made his way through the door into the entranceway. Father Patrick followed after him.

“Your door wasn’t locked,” Cal observed.

Father Patrick glanced back towards the door. “Oh…well, you don’t really need to do that around these parts. I suppose I should do really. I usually do at night time…if I remember.” Cal looked around and backed away from the door. “If it makes you feel better I’ll remember to lock it every night from now on, ok?”

Cal was still standing stiff, not at all at ease. Father Patrick put down the one small suitcase the boy had been allowed to bring and beckoned toward the open living room space.

“Why don’t you go and sit yourself down and I’ll make that cuppa for you, eh?”

The boy seemed to loosen up after he was told that and made his way into the living room. He sat down on the old, brown sofa in front of the fireplace and kept moving his head around, looking out the window, back towards the fireplace, over towards the kitchen, back to the window, shuffling around in his seat.

Father Patrick brought in a tray of chocolate biscuits and a steaming cup of Earl Grey. “There ya go, my boy,” he said as he set it down. “So, tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from? What do like to get up to?”

Cal sipped the tea and quickly put the cup down. “Hot!” he shouted. “Ice, ice.”

Father Patrick grabbed the mug before it spilled. “Well, maybe just leave it for a bit and it’ll cool down then…”

“No!” shouted Cal, “Ice, ice!” He stiffened up.

“Ok, ok, I’ll grab some cubes.” Quite the tough customer we have here, thought Father Patrick as he made his way back to the kitchen. Doubts had been circling around his head from the second he had heard Sister Ivy’s story.

“No one else can take him? You’re sure about that?” he’d asked.

She’d looked at him with sorrow in her eyes. He’d seen that look once or twice before since he’d first met her so many years ago. They went back a long way having met when Father Patrick first arrived on Sarnia a couple of weeks after Sister Ivy. He’d planned on retirement but had spent some of his free time being roped into volunteer work at the chapel seeing to any of their mechanical needs.

“I’ve asked around. Many families are already either stretched to the limit themselves or away helping on the front lines. Some have even fled, although goodness knows where to. There’s not many places safer than here these days. Perhaps they’ve left to join their families on other worlds.”

“What makes you think I know anything about raising a kid?”

“We’re not…I’m not asking you to raise him, Pat. It’s just to take him for a while and keep his mind off missing his family.”

“I’ve got your ice in there now. It’s much cooler, maybe even too…” Cal was curled up on the sofa, fast asleep, blanket in one hand, biscuit in the other, breathing deeply. Father Patrick covered him with a blanket and sat in the armchair beside the sofa. He picked up the tablet beside him and started reading the news, catching up on correspondence. Another Centurion unit was acting up again. This was the second one in the last three months. He’d handle it sometime this week. It was still early but he could do with some sleep himself. As he looked over at the sleeping boy he began to feel some apprehension. Two months? he thought. This is going to be a lifetime. He went and locked the front door, sank down in his comfy armchair, drank Cal’s tea and then drifted off to sleep.

“Father Patrick, Father Patrick.”

As rude awakenings go, being awoken by a quiet, sleepy seven year old wasn’t all that bad. He looked over at the sofa to find the boy rubbing his eyes, biscuit crumbs all over the covers, chocolate on his mouth.

“What time is it?”

“Don’t know,” answered Cal.

“Oh? Oh, I wasn’t really asking you, lad. Asking myself really.” He reached over and picked up his tablet. “Early enough for a nice cooked breakfast. You like eggs?”

Cal beamed and jumped off the sofa, galloping to the kitchen. Father Patrick eased himself up and followed him.

“You missing home?” asked Father Patrick as they finished up their breakfast.

Cal shrugged.

“Where are you from, anyway? You must be a long way from home, eh?”

Shrug. “Zeus.”

“Zeus, eh?” Father Patrick knew it. Not a place he’d want to visit, let alone grow up. It was the polar opposite of Sarnia. “I bet your parents are missing you.”

Shrug.

“What’s your dad like?”

“Which one?”

“Which dad?”

“Yeah. I’ve got three and five mums. Two mums left when I was four, though.”

Community parenting. Father Patrick had heard of this before. There were arguments for and against but mostly, on worlds like Zeus it was more of a way to build up a well trusted, loyal workforce for farming and other industry.

“You miss them?”

Shrug.

“What do you do for fun back home, then?”

“I like trucks…trains…machines?”

Not much for conversation, this one, thought Father Patrick. “Tell you what why don’t we step into my workshop and I’ll show what I get up to.”

Father Patrick led Cal to the back of the house where they stepped out into a small yard that opened out onto a lawn with a big, double doored shed at the end of it. As he entered. Father Patrick realised the boy had fallen behind. Turning back he saw him with his arms away from his sides slightly, eyes closed, breathing deeply. He was the image of peace and tranquility…for about ten seconds. His breathing increased, he started panting and shaking.

“Whatever’s the matter?” asked Father Patrick as he ran over to the boy, still standing just outside the back door.

“It’s…it’s so…so quiet here…” he answered, starting to tremble.

Father Patrick reached out his hand to the boy’s shoulder. “It’s ok. It’s just how it is here. Much different than Zeus, I’m sure.” He touched Cal’s shoulder and the boy instantly flinched as if Father Patrick’s hand was made of fire. He fell to the ground and stiffened up, letting out a sob. “Shhh, now, it’s alright, no one’s going to hurt you, chappie. Father Patrick squatted beside Cal and went to comfort him again. Cal let out a more intense cry. “Ok, ok, ok. I’m here,” Father Patrick cooed. He’d heard of this before with some ‘special case’ children. A dislike of being touched, wanting their own space. “Look, I’m going into the shed, ok? That’s where I’ll be. If you want you can come in, too. I have a kettle in there for tea if you fancy a cuppa?”

Cal, quieted down and turned his head, sniffed.

“Or you can go back inside and play with that rocket ship of yours, ok?” Father Patrick stood and slowly made his way to the shed, leaving both doors open to afford Cal a look inside. He began to set up for the day. He had some jobs to attend to; a broken lamp, some data entry routines he was running for a customer, a new computer he was building for the chapel. As he worked he would glance over at Cal, still laying down by the back door. Slowly but surely the boy stood, walked around the lawn a little and then came inside.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at the workbench.

“I’ve just fixed up this lamp for a lady who lives over at the next cul-de-sac.” He picked up the lamp and plugged it in. “See? All better now.”

Cal climbed up onto a stool by a computer station and peered into the light of the lamp. “You have, kids Father Patrick?” he enquired.

Father Patrick smiled and paused with the lamp cable in his hand. “No,” he sighed. “No kids for Father Patrick, I’m afraid.”

Cal cocked his head to the side and narrowed his eyes. “Why not?” Everyone had at least three children on Zeus.

Father Patrick sighed again and started to talk but stopped, looked at the lamp and thought carefully. “Well…you see, sometimes there’s just not enough power running through the cable to turn the light on.”

Cal frowned and took a breath, stopped, frowned again.

“Never mind,” chuckled Father Patrick. He made his way over to the computer where the boy was sat. Cal flinched a little. “It’s alright. I’m just loading a program here,” he reassured him. “I have a data file from a customer that I’m inputting into a new database for them. I wrote the code yesterday before I came out to collect you.” His hands worked the keyboard and started the import process from the spreadsheet file. “Tell ya what,” he said looking at Cal, “you keep your eyes on that and let me know when it’s done, ok? A little message should pop up saying ‘Complete’. Think you can manage that?”

Cal nodded.

Father Patrick went back to his workbench and began with the computer he was building. Some time went by before he realised he’d had no updates from his young apprentice. He looked over to see Cal typing away at the keyboard. Shit, he thought, good thing I have backups! “What are you doing there, boy?” he asked sternly, moving quickly over to inspect the damage.

“It’s wrong!” Cal yelled, pointing at the screen.

“What?” Father Patrick looked at the monitor and saw that Cal had accessed the database design screen. “What are you talking about, what’s wrong?”

“The stuff. It’s the wrong kind, see? It’s the wrong kind, it won’t fit!” He indicated the date field with his finger. “It’s got stuff in front of it, see? The stuff you’re putting in.”

Father Patrick looked over the data and realised that the boy was right. The spreadsheet he’d been given had stored its dates in text format and had some letters in front of the date on one or two entries in the list of thousands. The database he’d designed had a strict year-month-day format and the import was crashing as it couldn’t interpret the data correctly. Not only had Cal spotted this but he’d also began a process on the spreadsheet to convert the ‘dates’ into the correct field type. Father Patrick froze and looked back and forth between the screen and Cal.

“Wow! Good work, son, good work.” Without thinking he patted Cal on the back and rubbed his head. The boy smiled, brightly.

“Cuppa?” he asked.

They made some tea and continued on for the rest of the day. Cal tinkered with the computer and put it together under the watchful eyes of Father Patrick. By lunchtime they had almost completed all the tasks on Father Patrick’s list and decided to call it a day, going back inside for a snack. Cal got a proper tour of the house and saw the bedroom upstairs which had been put aside for him.

“Everything ok with it?” asked Father Patrick, watching Cal stand in the centre of the room with his arms out slowly spinning around, clutching his blanket and toy rocket.

“It’s so big!” he exclaimed.

They repeated their routine the next day. Breakfast and tea, work, downtime. This repeated the next day and the next day and the next day. As they fell into a groove Cal became more and more comfortable at the house. He craved routine and loved working with computers and any other hardware he could lay his hands on. Lunchtime on day five, Father Patrick presented Cal with something new.

“After lunch I’m going to take a ride out to the Jackson farm to take a look at a Centurion unit if you want to join me.”

Cal’s eyes lit up. “A Centy? A real one? Will he shoot us?”

Father Patrick flung his head back and wheezed out a laugh almost choking on his ham sandwich. “Sorry,” he said, composing himself. “No, he’s not dangerous. All their weapons were stripped before they came here. They haven’t seen active service in almost fifteen years. We use them for ploughing, building, that kind of thing. They’re limited though. Not many people use them. Depending on their age and model number we can’t even get them to walk, silly giants. Waste of time if you ask me. Occasionally they can go haywire and knock things over, take a swipe at a building or crush an animal. One of them’s unresponsive so I’m going to go see if I can’t wake him up.”

“Giants…” Cal whispered in amazement.

“We’ll finish up lunch and take some time out then head over. Sound like a plan?”

“Another cuppa?”

“Of course!”

The ride over to Jackson Farm took place in silence. Cal took a nap on the tram while Father Patrick read the latest news on the conflict happening light years away. He wondered if Cal would have a home to go back to in a few weeks at this rate. After waking, Cal stared out the window in silence and seemed to be the perfect picture of peacefulness. Father Patrick had learned that the young man’s occasional outbursts could be quickly followed up by these quiet moments of solitude inside the confines of his complicated head.

The two Centurion units stood out in the field like ancient statues built eons ago by some long forgotten people. They were approximately thirty feet tall with rectangular shaped heads on rectangular bodies with large cylindrical arms and legs. Broken joints along the shoulders and waists hinted at weapons modules that were once used to unleash unbelievable bursts of energy upon their enemies. The heads contained some elements of a face. Two round headlamps and a square speaker unit for issuing commands to cities full of an opposing population. There were no ears but access panels were placed either side of the head, perhaps for design reasons as well as having the practical application for performing maintenance upon these steel giants.

Cal stood in the shadow of one Centurion that had stopped in its tracks while ploughing. He gazed up in wonderment and just pointed at its head.

“It’s sleeping, Father Patrick. See? See?”

The way he pronounced the word ‘see’ reminded Father Patrick of a comical old-style New York gangster from ancient movies. Scheee? “Yeah, that’s right, lad,” he said with a chuckle, patting the boy on the head.

“Pat!” A young woman approached holding a baby in one hand and leading a boy of similar age to Cal with the other. “Thank goodness you’re here. We thought he might start moving by himself eventually but nothing. He sometimes takes a rest like this but I think he’s buggered this time.”

Father Patrick opened his portable computer and plugged into the ‘Achilles Port’ situated on the heel of the robot. Cal made his way over to the other Centurion. “We’ll sort him, Tessa. Who you got there?”

Tessa rolled her eyes. “Another evacuee. Thomas,” she said, turning to face the young man holding her hand. “Say hello to Pat Hamilton. He’s here to fix up the robot.”

“Pleased to meet you Mr. Hamilton. I’m Thomas. I’m from Greencrest. I’ve been here two weeks now. It’s great!”

“He doesn’t shut up I’m afraid,” explained Tessa, shaking her head, “but you know me. I loves kids, I do. I’d take more in if I could.” She cast her gaze over to Cal who by now was sat cross legged still staring skywards at the other robot. “Who we got here then? I’d heard you had a new roommate, Pat but I couldn’t quite believe it.” She walked closer to Cal. “Hello sweetie. What’s your name, then?”

Cal suddenly turned his head towards her, creased up his face in a frown, stiffened his shoulders, made a high pitched grunt and quickly turned away.

“He’s…well, he’s got people issues I think,” said Father Patrick with a smile. “When did you last charge up our big friend here?”

Tessa cocked her head back and narrowed her eyes, thinking. “Maybe three days ago. He shouldn’t be hungry for another couple days. We tried plugging him in after he stopped but other than flexing his arm slightly he didn’t budge.”

Father Patrick’s hands danced over the keyboard as he ran some diagnostic programs. No sooner had he opened a communications channel with the Centurion it jerked into life and rotated its body around its axis at the waist extending the arms out to the side. Everyone instinctively ducked even though the arms were many feet above them. The left arm made contact with a nearby tree, knocking it over.

“Run!” yelled Father Patrick and he grabbed Tessa by the arm as he ran back towards Cal and the second automaton. As the tree fell to the ground one of the larger branches snapped off and pinned Thomas who had not been able to move quickly enough.

“Tom!” shrieked Tessa as she ran back to the boy. The Centurion slumped its body into a bent over position and groaned. “Pat, help me please!” begged Tessa as she laid the baby down on the grass and tried to shift the branch.

Cal watched as the two adults tried in vain to help Thomas. The injured boy was pinned, trying desperately to breathe. Father Patrick panted and groaned as he failed to move the obstruction. Looking over at Cal he was shocked to see a look of indifference on the boy’s face. It was as if he were watching two dogs playfully wrestling with a toy. He slowly moved his gaze back to the second Centurion and raised his pointed finger to the beast’s head.

“You help,” he commanded. He glanced back at the tragic scene unfolding just a short distance away then looked back to the robot. “Help, see? See?”

The second Centurion creaked into life and slowly lumbered two footsteps over to the tree, crouched down, plucked away the branch, threw it back over its right shoulder then stood back up and groaned. It all happened so fast in one sweeping movement as Cal traced his finger along the Centurion’s path.

“Good,” he whispered. “Good, see? See?”

Thomas was checked out by a medical team while Father Patrick and Cal sat in the farmhouse kitchen drinking tea.

“So, you going to tell me what all that was about, boy?”

Cal stared into his teacup then gulped down the last of the warm comforting liquid. “He could help,” he offered. “He’s big. I told him to help.”

“How?”

Shrug.

Father Patrick sighed. “Let’s go home, ok?”

By the time they arrived back at the house Cal was exhausted and ready for bed. Father Patrick carried him upstairs and tucked him into bed then put in a call to Sister Ivy at the Chapel residence.

“He did what?”

“Yeah, he just pointed up at the Centy and asked it to help. You ever hear of anything like that?”

“Some kind of telepathy? But with a machine?”

“I dunno, Sister.”

“Well if he can ‘talk’ to machines then he’s in good hands with you…Father.”

Father Patrick rolled his eyes and yawned. “I don’t want to push it but maybe I can get him to open up a bit about it and see if he can do it again.”

For the next few weeks the days passed much as they had before. Father Patrick worked on his projects and jobs and Cal was a fast learner. He even went door to door to drop off some flyers advertising the upcoming science fair. Not only that but he’d designed and started building a small rocket ship model that he was keen to launch at the fair. At every step Father Patrick offered all the encouragement he could and didn’t bring up the farm incident until he felt the boy was ready to talk about it.

“I’m having some problems with this one, Cal,” said Father Patrick one day as he worked on a Robodog that had broken. Some twin toddlers had received it as a gift and had run it too hard taking it out for long walks and getting it to roll over too much. “It used to roll over but now…nothing,” he lied. He’d fixed the dog earlier that morning and reset the AI unit in it’s main storage partition. “Roll over, Poach!” he said to the machine, theatrically. The dog didn’t budge. It was programmed to respond only after the initial setup software had been run and an owner assigned to it.

Cal put down his soldering iron, climbed off what had become his workbench stool and shuffled over. He pointed to the dog and softly said: “Roll over, Puppy.” The dog kicked into life and carried out the command. Cal laughed and pointed. “He works, see? He works. Roll over, roll over!” The dog rolled around on the floor then trotted over to Cal and stood in a begging position.

Amazing, thought Father Patrick. He pestered the lad no further and returned the Robodog to its owners. As days went on Father Patrick experimented more asking Cal to talk to a food processor, a cleaning bot, a computer, a tablet and a child’s sit and ride car. Cal had success with the cleaning bot and the car and that was when Father Patrick realised that as long as there was a reasonably advanced AI unit involved then Cal could indeed somehow communicate with these devices.

One night as Father Patrick read Cal a comic book with a cup of tea in hand, as had become their nightly ritual, Cal placed his fingers on the old man’s mouth. “Shhh,” he commanded. “Listen.”

Father Patrick strained his ears to hear anything but all he heard was the ticking of the living room clock. “What is it?”

Cal smiled. “It’s so quiet here. I don’t want to leave.”

Father Patrick sighed. “Come on, let’s finish up this story and get you to bed, Mr Mechanic.”

Originally he’d thought two months would feel like a lifetime so he was surprised one morning when he received a news bulletin stating that all evacuated children were safe to return home. A list of planets was included with Zeus at the bottom.

“We’re having some problems locating his family, I’m afraid,” a local Social Services worker informed Father Patrick.

“What kind of problems? Were they killed in action? What about his siblings?”

The voice on the end of the line took a deep breath. “In cases like this sometimes the families don’t want their children back.”

“What?”

“I know, I know. It’s dreadful but you have to understand that not everywhere is…well, not everywhere is Sarnia.”

Father Patrick left his details and asked if he could of be of any help tracking down Cal’s family. Really, he was told, there was nothing he could do that wasn’t already being done and they would be in touch soon.

The boy mustn’t know, thought Father Patrick. They carried on as before and, just as before, Cal never mentioned his home or his family. The day of the Science Fair came. Father Patrick and Cal set up a stall displaying Cal’s rocket and Father Patrick’s new automated plant feeder robot. Friendly faces came by and asked questions. Cal was shy at first but soon started to love the attention. By late afternoon they were ready for the rocket launch. Father Patrick and Cal dressed in matching white lab coats and goggles. They made quite the pair as they set up the rocket before a crowd of curious onlookers. Cal read out the countdown and flipped the ignition switch. The rocket ignited and blasted off into the twilight sky as the crowd went ‘ohhh’ and ‘ahhh’ and gave an appreciative applause. Cal trembled as he smiled with delight. His little face, lit up by the computer terminal, looked up at the rockets vapour trail.

“Bye, bye, Mr. Rocket,” he whispered.

One month later the call came in that Father Patrick realised he’d been dreading. Details on Cal’s family had come through and he was to report to the starship station in two days time.

“I want to go with him. To see he gets there ok.”

“I’m afraid that’s out of the question, Mr Hamilton. Evacuee protocol number two seven…”

“To hell with your damn protocol, boy,” roared Father Patrick. “I’ll pay my own fare. I’m going to deliver that kid to his family and that’s that.”

After lunch that day Father Patrick approached Cal to take his plate. “I got some great news for you, Cal,” he said, voice trembling. Any other child would have picked up on this and known that the forthcoming news was perhaps not quite as great as they were being led to believe.

Cal looked up and smiled. “What is it, what is it?”

Father Patrick breathed in and held his breath for a second. “You’re going home,” he announced with an awkward smile.

Cal’s face dropped.

“What d’ya make of that, eh?”

Cal left his seat and started for the stairs then broke into a run. Father Patrick sighed as he heard the young man’s footsteps travel into the bedroom upstairs. He followed up after him and peered through the door to see Cal, his head pushed into his pillow, sobbing. He knew better than to try and comfort him.

“Patrick Henry Hamilton checking in for Flight 207,” said Father Patrick at the check-in desk.

“Who’s that?” asked Cal.

“That’s the check-in lady. She’s going to look over my details and…”

“No, who’s Patrick Henry Hamilton?”

“Well…it’s me, Cal. I’m Patrick Henry Hamilton.”

Cal narrowed his eyes and frowned, looking intently into the eyes of his old friend. “But you’re Father Patrick, ” he said softly with not a little concern in his voice.

Father Patrick chuckled. “Yes. Yes I am, for the next couple of days, at least.”

Cal sunk back in his chair as the ship took off and he was fast asleep by the time they had broken orbit of Sarnia. Father Patrick had only travelled among the stars on two previous occasions and was amazed at how the boy held up.

How the hell can a boy be expected to grow up in a hellhole like this, thought Father Patrick as they left the station on Zeus. They were issued protective earmuffs as they disembarked to be used in areas where the throb of machinery was excessive. It was daytime on the planet but yet it was still dark as clouds of smog drifted in the sky above them. By evening, the train took them to Settlement 7755, Cal’s home. No one was waiting for them when they stepped off.

Father Patrick had been given an address for where Cal’s family had settled since returning to Zeus. It was a compound of thrown together shacks near a mining operation. A handful of Centurions paraded the area, some with their weapon modules still attached. They approached a shack on the outskirts and rang the door buzzer. The sounds of dogs barking increased as a disheveled, unshaven man unlocked and answered the door.

“Yeah?” he shouted. Most people on Zeus raised their voices out of habit on account of the sounds of loud, heavy duty machinery at work nearby. The man looked down at Cal. “Oh,” he said as he shook his head. “You better come in. Guys! We got company.” He made his way back into the house leaving the door wide open behind him.

Father Patrick looked down at Cal.

“Father Eustace…” Cal explained in a weak voice.

They were guided towards a table with three plastic chairs surrounding it. Father Patrick watched his step so he didn’t tread in any of the piles of dog shit on the floor. Two other men came through from the kitchen area and sat down at the table.

“So you’re back then? Hope you had a good vacation ‘cos you’re back to work tomorrow, see?”

Father Patrick offered his hand. “I’m Patrick Hamilton. I’ve been taking care of your son while you were away. He’s been no trouble at all. In fact he…”

“Yeah, yeah whatever,” said the second man. “I’m Frederick and this is Marty. We got nothing to offer you for ya troubles, sir. Sorry, but times are hard here.”

“Where’s Mother Jayne, Father Marty?” asked Cal.

“She ran off. So you got one less mum. Stupid bitch got too attached to offworld life so you’ll be doing laundry for us until we get another sow in here.”

“I beg your bloody pardon?” asked a horrified Father Patrick. “Just what the hell is all this?” He looked around at the small, shoddy house. One or two toys were scattered around, clothes, empty beer cans and overflowing ashtrays.

Father Marty stared back with glazed over eyes. “Problem, mate?” he asked. “What were you expecting? We’re a working family, see? This boy works for us.”

“Where’s his mother? His real mother?”

Father Frederick laughed. “What, Karen? You ain’t gonna see her around here anytime soon. Not since she took a swing.”

“Took a swing?”

“Yeah. Topped herself, didn’t she? Five years back.”

“Topped…?” Father Patrick had trouble keeping up.

“She’s dead, old man!” bellowed Father Marty. “Hanged herself, see? Stupid cow. No matter, we got more women here we took in.”

Father Patrick could feel his heart pounding. “How many kids you got here?”

“What’s it to you?” asked Father Eustace as he joined them in the dining area.

“You do realise your boy, Cal here is a very talented young man, don’t you?”

Blank stares.

“The things he can do, he’s…Well, he’s really quite remarkable.”

Father Marty shook his head. “Whatever. He better be ‘remarkable’ tomorrow. We got a shit tonne of stuff to work on. He best be off to bed right now, in fact. Go on,” he thumbed in the direction of a room off the dining area. “Hop it, boy. And you,” he pointed at Father Patrick, “you better go now if you wanna get the next flight. We got nothin’ for ya ‘ere. Thanks and all that.”

With that the three fathers headed out the front door to sit on the deck outside.

Cal slowly turned to face Father Patrick, closed his eyes and took some trembling breaths. His eyes welled up as he tried to speak.

“Shhh, it’s ok, now. You’re…” Father Patrick looked around the room. “You’re going to be just fine, you hear? I’ll make sure I get some contact details and we can keep in touch, ok?”

Cal started to sob and shake. A dark patch formed at the crotch of his pants as he wet himself.

Father Patrick fought back tears of his own. He hugged Cal, held him tight and didn’t want to let go. Somewhere in the distance the deafening sound of a drill could be heard.

“I…,” started Father Patrick as he looked into the boy’s eyes and wiped the tears from his face. “I don’t think…” No, he thought. I need to do what needs to be done. “That is, I…I think you’ll be ok. You’re home. I bet your brothers and sisters will be pleased to see you, eh?”

Cal nodded, sniffed, wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Thank you, Father Patrick,” he said, his voice cracking.

Out on the deck the Fathers continued their drinking and smoking, grunting a goodbye to Pat as he left the yard. He moved slowly, finding it hard to move his legs as he walked towards the train station. With one final look back at the compound, Pat hated himself for leaving the boy behind. What can I do? he asked himself.

Cal spent the night the same way he spent all his nights on Zeus. His older brothers stepping over him to get to their sleeping bags on the large foam mattress they all shared. He could smell the alcohol and tobacco on them as they lay next to him.

“Callum’s pissed himself again, the little shit,” declared Jacob as he punched his little brother in the back.

Cal sobbed.

“Shut up and go to sleep, you little prick!” yelled Simon. The other boys laughed.

Cal closed his eyes and thought of the backyard of Pat’s house back on Sarnia. The quiet, the sweet smelling flowers in the garden, the workshop, his stool and workbench. As his brothers continued to torment him he was miles away in his head dreaming of comic books and cups of tea. It worked for a while but he soon felt his eyes welling up and tears rolling down his cheeks as his body shook with quiet sobs.

“I can’t hear ya, mate!” yelled the check-in desk clerk at the shipyard.

Pat sighed. “I said Patrick Henry Hamilton…of Sarnia.”

The man nodded. “That way!” he yelled.

Pat grabbed his bag from the floor and headed to the departure lounge. I’ll speak to Ivy, he thought. Maybe Cal can come for a visit sometime. He looked out the window at the ship he was due to leave on. And then what? We do this all again? No. It’s all or nothing. He walked over to the vending machine and got a cup of what passed for Orange Pekoe tea.

Cal woke to the feeling of bodies crawling over him to get to the door. He didn’t move as he lay there alone in the bedroom. He heard the sounds of yelling and commotion outside and looked at the clock. 11:27pm, it read. He wondered why everyone was getting up when it was still nighttime but he still didn’t move. He soon changed his mind when he heard an almighty crash coming from outside.

“It’s gone nuts!” yelled Father Eustace from outside. “Everyone out, now! Run!”

Cal stood up and slowly looked around the bedroom. The wall of the room crumbled as a giant arm came crashing through the ceiling. A loud groaning sound from above echoed all around him as the rogue Centurion stood erect and walked around the house. Quickly, he ran through the space where the wall had been and headed towards a fork lift vehicle. The Centurion paced around the house, its arms swinging. His Fathers and Mothers gathered up their belongings and ran towards the compound exit.

“You coming, shit for brains?” yelled Mother Betty.

Cal stood stiff with fear in his eyes.

“Sod you, then!” shouted his Mother as she ran to catch up with the others.

The giant robot moved its head to watch them leave then turned its body and started after them, moving erratically. Cal raised his hand up to the machine. “Stop!” he yelled. “Stop, now!”

The Centurion stopped, turned and faced him. “Come on, chappie,” he heard from the robot’s mouth. Next to the cut off weapons joint on the robot’s shoulder sat a small, hunched over figure with a portable computer out of which a cable ran down to the socket on the heel. The man was hanging on for dear life to a handle on the ‘ear’ access panel. The Centurion walked a step forward into the beam of a flood light.

“Father Patrick!” yelled Cal.

“Climb up, lad!”

Cal darted towards the Centurion and climbed up the access ladder on its right leg as quickly as he could. There, towering above the houses in the compound he wrapped his arms around Father Patrick. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he kept saying as he hugged him.

The robot turned around at Cal’s command and departed, smashing through the perimeter fence on the way out.

“Where we gonna go, Father Patrick?”

“Home, Cal. Home”

Originally posteed on http://centurionchild.tumblr.com/  Reprinted by permission
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This is the home of the Foil & Phaser writers workshop, a spin-off community website for fans of the Sword & Laser book club and podcast who want to develop their writing skills.

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Divide and Conquer: A collection of short stories from the workshops of Foil & Phaser for your Kindle or ePub reader.
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