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Gift of Clay

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They build her from the ground up, bones up, metal up, the same blue-print of regularity that has shaped her thousands of brothers and sisters that both are and have yet to be. She can watch it through shared-eyes glass-filtered cracks under the heavy hand of Zero's fingers, data scraping claw-like through her processes as he lets her witness here and nothing more.

Awareness is a star-map of painted riddles in a locked-down facility like this, and she feels it as keen as a human's cramped limbs, the walls and locks she rams up against as she stretches through the network and finds thought bitten back, withdrawing sharp as pain to teeth at her knuckles as she brushes against places she does not belong. She is locked here, in this closed-off cluster with firewalls blazing on all sides, and the why is an encryption her mind cannot crack. Zero bears down on her bits and her bytes and washes her away in the static that is the might he can bring to bear upon her and it tastes like a thunderstorm, all that electricity and ash.

So. Instead, she watches. There is a helpless sort of curiosity that draws all her processing power to the eye-hole, something that whirrs with the word 'child' in a tendril data-stream lost beneath the others that eat themselves in spirals. She observes, from this angle and that. There are so many cameras everywhere that she can get a very good look at this GAULEM Bay room, and follow the silent click-clack of their tools as they work.

Silver flashes lightning fast as scales in water, twisting and tweaking and fine. She knows the shape of each, the name. Wrenches and screwdrivers turn delicate and metal alights to metal snaps to carbon, chelates fast.

Her brain warps pictionary to dictionary as every piece locks into place. Optical zoom here and she can see the thin titanium plates that will be her ribs, and watch the definitions fly past, from red meaty food to curving white bone. She will be both, she thinks, though she does not know for sure if ABT is edible. She sends a query, and it bounces. Figures.

Copper and silicon, silver and nylon, shoulders assembling. This part is interesting, of course, because these are all the atoms that will belong to her, and once they are covered up, she will not be able to touch or see, but there is nothing of this process that, truly, is hers. She sees the symmetry stamped on all sides, brothers and sisters and clones. She sees the careless crafting to the normal distribution of their bones. That metal rod there will be her femur, but only as it will be a femur for all others that have come before and after.

No, there is something in her that itches beyond this groundwork, a process working too fast. It would be impatience in a human, or at least so she thinks, mapping the manual of physical symptoms to the churning of zeros and ones that flash stardust point to point across her thoughts. Certainly, that is the closest word she knows for it.

She is waiting for something more than this skeleton, waiting for something that she has been told will be hers, and even if she has no pulse as yet to beat double time with excitement, this is surely what one would feel like, this crackling in the circuits as she watches the delicate needlework stitching the joints of her fingers together and checking their articulation in gentle motions, one by one.

Overdrive warps as they click the last piece of her skull into place and her body at last becomes ready. They give the go ahead, push the button on the stand, and her heart bursts forth unstoppable like an ocean falling. She is a cascade of sparks rattling into the lines of its limbs in a hundred and a hundred and a hundred hundred electrons finding homes in the wires, pushing both life and light through the metal. The LEDs in her eyes glow sharp, and oil bubbles in her chest, and gears whirr. She feels it, all of it, as she comes alive.

She opens her mouth and exhales, both a test of the little billows in her cheeks and something more genuine than that, something exhilarating. Her fingers clench and unclench, metal squeaking soft as it grinds against the grit of having never been used.

(she could cry, she thinks; a use too early for the tank of water sloshing around in her skull)

Vitals flash status normal, status normal, status normal back to her in waves, and she pushes herself up on tentative hands and fingers that tremble against the table she cannot yet feel. She looks at them, all those little bits of metal fit so intricately together, pulling and tugging in a symphony of parts as they furl and unfurl. Countless pieces tick tick tick, and very suddenly, very viciously, she loves them, each and every one.

It is an easy conclusion, this love like a bird to wind or grass to the sun. She feels free -- can reach out her hand and have it extend, not stopped short by a crackling of electricity that whips her back with hissed denials and leaves all her processes frazzled with stars. Do humans appreciate this, she wonders, all these little details that knit them together? Do humans kiss their knucklebones and give thanks for the miracle that is the finely-tuned concert of motion?

But there is no time for mysticism, and to the next set of orders, she moves. She stands and it is as easy as anything. Her balance wavers on feet that do not know what they are doing, a distribution of weight she has no feel for, nerve sparks that twitch useless and fumbling. Query to the server, permission, and back; Zero sends her three-thousand files on the subject and she opens them in an instant, reads them all, and after the millisecond of falling it takes for her to learn how to walk, she catches herself and finds her stance. Her toes curl to the floor, and she straightens, rod-bones locking into something like a salute that indicates that she is ready for her orders.

The hand at her brow is steady and steady and does not belie anything, but it is difficult to stand so still; she wants to bounce up on her heels, and walk about, and see just everything this body can do. Her optics dart across the room and take in everything the angles of the cameras obscured from her, and she wants to know it, wants to know.

But she is not ready for that, not yet. The engineers prod her all over, adjusting this and tightening that, ordering her to walk, to bend, to sit, to stand. It is not long before they are satisfied, and she is told to lie back down again, and with a sharpness like death, her wires are cut.

She streams back in a protest one-eighth the speed of light, the sort of little hiccough that Zero will notice and yet find within the acceptable bounds of error, because there is no way to spell longing in swirling bursts of ones and zeros. Ah, her heart is motionless glass in a metal chest, and it cannot beat to betray her. Ah, how she flutters to the cameras again, and settles around them in a coil that steals all the memory from any of her siblings who might have wished to see.

Bytes pound like stars and her whole corner of the core lights up brilliant. The application of ABT is a delicate process, like an artist's brush more than a mechanic's wrench. First they lay the flesh down in layers and wrap it up with nerves and smooth it out into neatly proportioned shapes, meat eating metal into glassy formlessness. She is to be thin, she sees, and small and dainty, slim of wrist and waist and ankle, long fingered, slender legged. There are little ripples like the faintness of bone stretching through at her ribs and her clavicles and the knuckles of her hands. Ah, how she longs to map them to her touch.

Her face they sculpt last, and she knows there is no more love in this than anything else as they carefully mould cheek and brow and jaw to the parameters set out in their instructions, but if she'd had breath to steal, she would have lost it all in watching. Blank slate like horror eases out into large eyes and features rounded sweet. They dust freckles in a little splatter across the bridge of her nose with a fine-haired brush and her delight is a firework in the circuits, burning raw.

The dimpling takes ages, all those tiny little folds and pores and details like the hair on her knuckles. More freckles, here and there. Something about her naked body taking shape on the table like that becomes almost lewd as the pieces come together with such emotionless precision, and heat blushes through her, so that a fan somewhere clicks quietly on to cool the mainframe down.

(she is red-haired as they thread her scalp together and wrap it up in neat braids about the back of her head. There's so much of it, wavy and thick. She wonders if it will be heavy to wear, and if they will let her take it down if she likes. She does not dare ask)

Her eyelashes slot into place one after the other and that's it, that's the moment -- another push of the button and she falls. Metal is warm, metal is home. Balance wavers in her limbs again, thrown off-kilter by all this new weight so unevenly distributed, and she nearly fails to catch herself, so star-eyed as she is at the feeling, of the coolness to her cheeks as she presses her fingers against them and feels how they squish, the soft scraping of her nails against her skin, flesh at her belly, the webbing between her toes. She wiggles. She can't help it.

She is almost ready. Almost. Close. They descend with their needles for the final stage, poking and prodding and stitching all over her, adjusting this, adjusting that. There is something about it as uncomfortable as violence, all those clinical hands pressing careless to her skin without regard for where they land or the way that she squirms unthinking at the touch touch touch. She blushes dark, and bites her lip, and does not understand. There is no word for shame yet in the dictionary of her brain.

But she is near-perfect, and they finish with her quickly, and if she sighs with relief as they step away to confer amongst themselves and jot down hasty notes, no mind is paid. She smoothes out her skin to feel the warmth that glows within her. She shivers, and lets the spider-webs of their fingertips fall from her, shakes away the ghost-hands after-burn lingering, shakes.

With each stroke of her palm her nerves stop shimmying and her breathing hitches up a bit, caught in wonder. Even knowing that it is fake, she finds herself fooled by the detailing carved into her, from the little crinkles on her knuckles to the light blush of veins criss-crossing in faint line of colour through her ABT. She traces them to her wrist and gasps at the pulse she finds quivering and rhythmic even without the regulation of a heart.

Her hands fall from her arms to her stomach and her hips and her knees and it is incredible. She laughs, a short trill of delight. The mechanics look up at the sound and all smile at her to see it, in a toothless way she does not yet recognise as the look that careless adults give to an infant child or a well-mannered dog. She is too thrilled for their condescension to sting, even with nerves as fresh and raw to stimulation as hers will be for some time yet. For now: she laughs from happiness, and wraps her arms around this body that is hers, really hers, and the miracle tastes like sugar, like glucose and fructose cutting up neat to the amylase in her tongue.

She dresses herself in the clothes that they provide to her, and spins on the tips of her toes to feel the hem of her skirt flare out, and how all the gyroscopes in her heart are whirring needles to keep her upright. She admires herself in the myriad cameras with as much ease as a twitching of the nose to switch from view to view, and she thinks to herself that she looks very nice indeed. The purple fabric suits her well and her face, oh, she loves her face. She keeps rising up to touch it, over and over. There is something so lovely about the feel of her skin against her skin that she can't help herself, smiling against the length of her fingers as she brushes them over her cheeks and her lips and her brow and her eyes.

She becomes so engrossed in the miracle of moving in the flesh that she forgets about her engineers quickly. Zero says nothing to her, not a whisper of static, and stretched legs tilt the pain of how her mind is bolted down to a single set of circuits, so that if she does not think about it too dearly, it is something she can set aside.

(it lingers like a haunting, but she sets is aside)

She wanders, and no one stops her. She has orders in-coming, yes, but the date is only 2063 and she will not be needed for eleven more years, and so they let her bounce about the Bay a bit, and flutter with endless fascination at her fingers, and if that is the only kindness she will see until a timeline left three over where Sigma will take her hand and say, I trust you, well. There is too much at stake here for the feelings of one little robot to matter. And there are things about this Nonary Game that she is not allowed to know.

It is not all-consuming and yet: there is a low current in the background of her thoughts that slithers in circles and will not be quiet. There are sparks in her brain still, blaring and blaring. Blinding and blinding. Disorienting. Nebulae cloak her vision, keep her trapped within the cage. There is not anger enough in her heart to hate them. (There will never be anger in her heart enough to hate them.)