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He sighed and shook his head as the prototype he’d been working on all afternoon ground to a sudden halt, and toppled headfirst onto the floor. Up until a few moments ago he’d been quite sure all glitches previously displayed had been fixed, or most of them at least; he’d been planning to bring his creation along for his final technology class, show his teacher what he was capable of, but it looked like he wasn’t going to be able to finish it in time.

He popped the front panel open and took a dispassionate look at the tangled mass of cables and electronic components sitting inside the cavity where a human’s bowels would be, nearly jumped out of his skin when something or someone touched him lightly on the shoulder. He whipped around to find a small child tentatively gesturing towards his robot prototype, and it took him a few seconds to notice that his lips were moving too.

“Hang on just a sec,” he spoke in a tone he could only hope would not ring out too loud or unnatural, rummaged through each of his pockets in turn until he successfully located his hearing aids. He slipped them on and fiddled with the settings for a bit, until he was satisfied that they were working properly; only then he turned back to the child, who apparently had been following the entire process in respectful, almost religious silence, and encouraged him to voice his previous remark all over again.

“I said, have you tried adding a couple of stabilisers to its locomotion unit?”

“Oh,” he muttered, half to himself, scratching his head somewhat bashfully. How had he not thought of it before, and more importantly, how come the little boy even knew what a stabiliser was?

“You’re quite right, ah – I don’t think I know your name, actually?”

The boy looked strangely alarmed by the simple question. “You’re not going to tell anyone I was in the Technology Department without a supervisor’s permission, are you?”

“What – no, why would I?”

“Well, it is against the rules,” the boy shrugged. “I just needed somewhere to hide from my parents until that awful party is over.”

He nodded with instant sympathy; the only reason why he’d been allowed a temporary break from what his mother used to call ‘his precise duty as the son of a Department Head’ were his upcoming finals, as his father expected him to pass with top grades at worst.

“I take it you’re a Blue, too,” he enunciated at length, half of his brain already working on a series of improvements he needed to make on his faulty prototype. “How do you know so much about robots? You look a little too young to be taking robotics classes.”

The boy shrugged again. “My father let me disassemble our CleanerBot after it short-circuited last year.”

Hmm, they had to be True Blues, if they could afford a CleanerBot of their own. He sighed and adjusted one of his hearing aids that had moved a little, could almost read the unspoken question in the lines on the boy’s face.

“No, I wasn’t born this way, and yes, I do sometimes take them off to better concentrate on my work.”

“What happened?” the boy ventured to ask, more curiously than sympathetically, much to his relief.

“Explosion in the Science Lab. It’s not too bad, all things considered; I lost my hearing, but all my limbs are still there and in working order, which is more than can be said for a couple of my classmates.”

“I’m going to be a scientist one day,” the boy announced out of the blue, something close enough to a smile showing on his face for the first time since the beginning of their conversation.

“Good for you,” he replied for lack of anything better to say, and turned back to his little malfunctioning robot. The boy slunk off to a quiet corner, dug out a book from his schoolbag, and didn’t so much as utter another word until the end of Tom’s shift.