The Thirteenth Birthday

The boy sat patiently on the foot of his bed in the windowless, white-washed room with his hands lightly clenched into fists on his knees. Soon, he thought very soon. Today the boy was to turn thirteen. The moment of his incubation was recorded at twelve O'clock AM, and at nine seventeen PM several months later the record changes to "Alive through use of internal and organic life support" meaning his birth. He looked up at the clock on the wall; eight sixteen. His time would not come until nine seventeen exactly. If anything, they were punctual; nothing too soon and never too late. The waiting was devouring him from the inside but he could do nothing but sit and think. The clock said eight eighteen now. The boy thought back to the morning of his birthday, it was all he could do to pass the time and the clock seemed to only advance if he looked away from it; eight nineteen now.

The boy was lightly woken from his sleep by a soft and kind voice that he knew since birth, "Wake up, do you know what day it is?" the boy rolled over to see the Protector gazing down at him. "Today is very special" the voice coming from the large metal thing was the voice of Mother, eternally patient, loving and understanding.

"Today I turn thirteen!" the boy exclaimed, he had been tracking the days for months now.

"That is right, child" the voice was deeper and filled with pride, it was the voice of Father.

"You have a busy day today, so we made you a big, hardy breakfast" said Mother as the Protector lifted the tray of food slightly in its arms. Even with its arms bent the tray hung almost to the floor in its long and slender limbs. It set the tray on the floor and leaned in over the bed, its right eye looked like that of an insect and its left was a large radial plate with a number of lenses of various sizes mounted in a circle like the lens of a microscope. The radial spun and a lens clicked in place and scanned the boy up and down looking for any abnormality. Its canine snout split open like a flower to reveal a cluster of hair-like fibers that whipped the air in search of any contagion in the boy's breath; it then did the same to the tray of food before placing the plate on the bed like a small table.

"Will the Teacher be coming soon?" the boy asked.

"No" said Father, "you will be busy today with other tasks." As Father spoke the Protector un-sheathed one of its long claws and began slicing the food into small pieces

"I can chew my food on my own." The boy said, the Protector continued.

"Well I won't get another chance after today." Mother said, half in jest as the blade slid back into the Protector's hand and it backed away into its stooping half-squat.

"Now eat up, your going to need your strength today" Father said, and the Protector backed into a corner and patiently awaited the boy to finish his meal, its radial eye spinning every now and again. The boy thought it strange the Teacher would not be here today, it always visited each day. It was almost as tall as the Protector, but much thinner. Its long cloak and flat, square hat always seemed funny to the boy, but he enjoyed the visits. The Teacher would answer any question he could think of, and the boy had made a game of trying to stump it. The boy looked over at the Protector, who filled the corner of the room with its imposing figure. Neither Mother nor Father were dominant at that moment, Mother drooped the head down slightly and dropped the shoulders while Father held the head up high and stood as straight legged as the bear-like legs allowed. This was the Protector himself, the head was held low but straight like a predator, the short legs bent into a squat, the metallic spine hunched over with the long and thin arms resting on the floor. It looked all too much like the metal skeleton of some great extinct animal. Unlike Mother or Father, the Protector was like a guard dog, it was loyal, obedient and loving, but knew no way of showing it apart from eviscerating any threat that might approach the boy. Mother and Father controlled it, but the body was, by default, the Protector. It was all three of them.

After breakfast the Protector presented the boy with the day's clothing, a simple jumpsuit as always, but this time instead of the usual gray it was a spotless white that seemed to glow in the soft light of the room. The boy changed out of his pajamas and into the white jumpsuit, then presented himself next to the door.

"You look so handsome." Mother said as a metallic hand adjusted the boy's collar. As the door opened they stepped out had-in-hand.

It was eight twenty-one why is this taking so long? The boy knew better than to question one of their clocks, time was the most important resource, no clock was ever wrong, but it was taking so long. The boy still sat still on the bed apart from some minor fidgeting. He couldn't help it, it was as if every second added the building pressure within him, the anticipation was too much. He slammed his eyes shut and put his mind else where, but not before glimpsing the clock again, eight twenty-two.

This was the best day of his life; he never got to leave the compound. He had studied it all with the Teacher, of course, but he had never seen it in person. Even with the Teacher's projector in his single camera-lens eye, nothing it could show him compared to this. He was sitting in the lap of the Protector with its arms looped around him and nearly touching each other on the Protector's back. The boy held onto the Protector's arms tight, because despite his wonder he was scared out of his mind at the fact that the small sphere they were in was flying at an incredible speed at an impossible altitude.

The Teacher had long ago taught him about this, about the bubble of anti-gravity that was projected from the ground bellow, but that didn't make it any less horrifying. He kept his gaze level with the horizon, at the massive spires that shot out of the metal surface bellow, it looked like the balding scalp of a giant, and he was nothing more than a flea.

"That is the tower" Father said, one of the embracing arms pointed to a massive metal knife that cut the clouds. Above the great tower was that which he had been waiting thirteen years for. "It was chosen because it will be in perfect alignment when the time comes"

"We are so happy for you, child" Mother's voice was soft and almost sad.

"Is something wrong?" he asked

Mother and Father spoke in unison "no, all is as it should be."

It was eight forty-seven. Eight Forty-seven! So close, yet the wait was worse than ever. He gave up on sitting and began pacing the small room. It was the same as his room, but this one was a little smaller and smelled like medicine. The boy walked in an arc from one side of the bed to the other, each lap glancing up at the clock that seemed to have stopped entirely. He looked away, it was testing him, it had to be. Time could not possibly be this slow! Eight fifty.

The Protector had guided the boy through a labyrinth of halls filled with mechanical beasts of innumerous shapes and sizes who all moved with speed and grace to some unseen task elsewhere in the tower. The boy found them fascinating, one was like a giant spider, another a fly the size his head, another a grasshopper, a centipede, a crab. He wondered what jobs they all did and where they were going. After some time a door opened and they walked into a blank room with a bed and a clock.

"We must go for a short time, but we will return" Father said.

"We will be with you in time for your birthday" Mother said in a somber voice as the Protector gave him a hug that lifted him into the air, and placed him carefully on the bed before backing out into the corridor. The door slid shut with a hiss.

It was nine O'clock. The door slid open to reveal the Protector's metal bulk filling the frame.

They spoke at once "It is time to prepare."

The wall next to the bed was gone now to reveal a massive machine. The boy, following the direction of the Protector, lied down on the bed. The machine hummed and a large bulky arm unfolded over him and a hand-like bundle of metal bands came down gently on his head. He reached for the Protector's hand and griped it tightly. As the clock marched on he could feel the machine humming louder, he strained his eyes to look at the time, nine fifteen. Time seemed to be moving faster now. Nine sixteen. The Protector held his hand like a tiny feather in its hand and tightened its grip just slightly.

The boy felt nine seventeen before he even saw it on the clock. He felt many things; he felt the machine, the room, the tower. He felt more and more until he was racing along beams of light. He explored his surroundings in less time than he could blink, and then he heard it. Above him in the sky, it was massive and imposing, but so beautiful. It called to him, like a thought, it was his thought but it was from elsewhere, it was the thoughts of others but it was within him, come to us, you belong among the stars. As he raced to the voice he forgot how to walk, blink, eat, or breathe. He no longer saw the room, or smelled the sent of medicine; he no longer felt the firm grip of the Protector's hand. I was like a doorway, he reached a sea, an endless void scattered with the voices of countless souls shining in the endless darkness. One called to him we need you it said, and he knew it was true. As he ran to the distant light he heard like a whisper, "he looks so peaceful when he's sleeping" Mother, followed by Father.

"He does, our son." And then he left.

As the last of the neural impulses flowed into the uplink the body of the boy went limp. An empty vessel, the body was left like a broken toy; his mind was being beamed off world to the lunar relay, and then a distant colony light-years away to be loaded in one of the massive server-cities of the World Mind. He was immortal now. The World Mind's voice was everywhere and everything, "Protector, reset." The Protector dropped the hand of the lifeless body and walked out of the room, ignorant of the past thirteen years with the boy. It marched down the hall without a destination; its legs knew where to go even if the split-processor did not. It found itself in the nursery, two Protectors were walking out holding newborn infants in their massive arms and a dozen more were standing about, looking in awe at the contents of jars of fluid. The Protector stopped, in front of it was an unborn fetus suspended in a tank of liquid. "He looks so peaceful when he's sleeping." Mother said.

"He does" Father replied, "our son."