The Love Claws

@Sheryl Nantus 2016



Faith had lost the concept of time.

True, she still saw the sun rise and fall and used whatever method of counting was common to the area, be it an hourglass or a digital clock, a slowly dripping water
wheel or giant numbers displayed on the side of a building but it all meant very little to her.

But one thing was constant—the need to keep moving.

Her joints creaked but not because of age, although when she had been human it would have been common. She needed to find some lubricant and soon, before the
metal edges started to grind against each other.

The setting sun bounced off her tiny arms as she crept into the alley, sniffing the air for anything she could use. If she was lucky she'd find some actual machine oil. In
a pinch she could use animal fat but the reek…

A sudden movement caught her eye and she froze.

The man digging through the dumpster wore a leather jacket and jeans, his black T-shirt tight across his chest. He swore as he tossed take-out boxes aside,
splattering Chinese food everywhere.

"Where the hell is it?" He paused to brush a lock of dark hair out of his eyes. "Damn you, Cynthia."

Faith couldn't help creeping closer, curious as to what was going on. Heartbreak and domestic situations weren't new to her but this seemed… different.

The young man dug deeper and let out a shout. He pulled his hand up to reveal a wallet, smeared in what appeared to be soy sauce. Still cursing, he emptied the
contents into his pocket and tossed the soaked leather back into the dumpster.

She chuckled to herself.

There are worse ways to end a relationship.

The man snapped his head around. "Who's there?"

Faith didn't move, locking her joints in place.

He moved closer, squinting in the dim light cast from a bare light bulb set far down the alley. "What the…" He snatched up a nearby piece of wood.

Faith resisted the urge to laugh. She'd been smacked with clubs before and suffered nothing worse than a dent. But while she didn't feel pain she wasn't keen on being
smacked around.

The best thing she could do was stay still and hope he'd move on.

The man advanced on her hiding place, swinging the piece of wood back and forth. He stopped still, frowning as he looked into the shadows. "Whoa." He reached
down and took hold of her arm. "What are you?"

Faith kept her eyes open as he tugged her out into the light.

She didn't need to blink. She did so only to comfort herself that at some point in her life, she had been human.

"What…" He looked her over even as she returned the favor.

The man was in his early twenties, his hair at a respectable length off his shoulders. The fresh stubble surprised her; as she was used to the current trend of clean-
shaven faces. He studied her with a wide-eyed enthusiasm, his mouth curving into a grin as he ran his hands over her metal limbs.

Faith felt relieved at his lack of fear. There'd been a time when she had been considered magical, even evil—now she could masquerade as an antique trinket, hide
in plain sight as long as she knew when to stay still and when to move.

Because if anyone discovered what she was, she'd be in big trouble.

"So what are you?" He murmured as he held her up to the light. "A—" He frowned and looked into her eyes. "A kid's toy?"

Faith stayed silent.

Toss me into the trash and walk away.

"Well." He tapped the edge of her metal nose. "Let's see what you're made of, my sweet little thing."

Her silent pleading went unanswered as he tucked her under his arm and headed out of the alley.

Wonder what I can get for her, Alex wondered as he walked down the sidewalk. A cool toy like this has got to be worth a few dollars.

But he wouldn't get much until he cleaned her up. The little metal dragon was filthy, covered with grime and dirt. She stood about three feet tall, with a cute little
snout and a long articulated tail that curled around her two legs. An interesting toy, dressed as if it were a small child in a vest and short pants.

The eyes—

The eyes were odd. Not the usual cheap glass toy ones. These were made of something different, something that made them look more lifelike. His heart raced as he
contemplated them being made of some rare gem, something he could extract and sell.

Alex glanced at them again as he hopped onto the bus, waving his monthly pass at the driver.

It'd be wrong.

Besides, he'd probably get more for the 'bot as a whole instead of breaking her up into little pieces.

Especially now that he'd lost the job at the restaurant. Cynthia had been a lovely woman but he hadn't wanted to get involved with the boss's daughter. All he wanted
to do is work the register and get enough to pay for his tinkering habit.

She, however, saw no problem and let him know she was not only interested in meeting him in the storage room but expected it as part of his daily routine.

Alex refused and she'd tossed his free lunch, including his wallet, into the trash and announced she'd get him fired if he didn't leave right now. She'd go to her father
and say he came on to her.

Alex pondered for all of a minute the chances of being able to convince Vito that his daughter was the one with the issue, not him.

He'd grabbed his leather jacket and left.

So now he was unemployed, smelt like old chow mein, and had to throw his wallet out.

At least he had the toy dragon.

A short ride later he was back in his apartment, anxious to begin looking over his new acquisition.

"Let's take a look at you." He propped the tiny dragon on the workshop table and picked up a rag from the nearby bin. "I hope you don't mind if I strip you down."
Alex carefully took hold of the stained vest and removed it, wrinkling his nose at the smell. "Looks like your clothing can use a good cleaning."  He put the vest and
pants on top of his laundry basket.

It took a good half-hour to wipe the assorted liquids and fluids off the small toy dragon, making sure to scrub the polished metal clean.

"There. Now you look good." Alex frowned as he moved one of the arms up and heard an annoying squeal of metal on metal. "That doesn't sound good. Let me oil
this up." He reached for an antique oil can. "I got this from the junk dealer down the street. Told me it was hundreds of years old; figured he was trying to jack up the
price. It was still too pretty for me to leave behind."

He applied the tiny tip of the can to the various joints and squeezed the metal trigger. "And before you think I'm flirting with you… I want you to know you're the first
robot I've ever brought back to my place. Usually I just tinker with them at work; make sure they're operating at maximum efficiency and all that." Alex carefully
moved the arm again and smiled. "There. Good as new."

She was in heaven.
Clean clothing, a fresh oiling and all buffed up.

It wasn't as good as getting back to being human but it was as close as she could get.

"There." The man buttoned the vest up and tugged it to fit. "Good as new." He peered into her eyes. "You're a very pretty dragon." He picked up a small tool. "But
those eyes. There's something about those that just beg me to—"

He moved the tweezers closer to her right eye.

No.
"Please don't," she said in a shaky voice, blinking the metal eyelids. "I won't be able to see if you take it out."

His eyes went wide and he dropped the tool on the floor before pulling away from the table.

"You—" He swallowed hard and peered at her with a combination of fear and curiosity. "You spoke to me."

Faith let out a silent sigh. Maybe she could play at being an AI, make him think she was just an advanced series of programs created to simulate life…

He wagged his finger at her. "I knew you weren't normal." His voice was low and shaky. "What are you?"

She paused, caught between wanting to stay silent and needing to connect.

It's been so long—
"My name is Faith." She reached out her hand, the tiny claws gleaming in the light. "Thank you for your help."

He took her hand carefully, as if she were made of glass, and shook it. "Name's Alex. Alex Dumas." He looked at the connection between them. "You're not an AI."
It wasn't phrased as a question.

"I graduated university with a degree in programming. You're not running any program that I can tell."

Faith cocked her head to one side, her curiosity overriding her common sense. "Why were you digging in the garbage if you're a programmer?"

Alex let go of her hand and rubbed the back of his neck. "Too many of us and too few jobs. I've been hopping around the grid for a year since graduation, looking for
something. But I've got to eat and if it means taking a job working in some cheap restaurant—" He spread his hands with a shrug and a grin.

"I see." She wasn't sure if she did but it felt like the right thing to say.

"So, if you don't mind me asking, what are you?" He waved a hand over her. "Drone? Some sort of advanced military—"

She chuckled, letting out a puff of smoke. "Because there's so much call for tiny robot dragons."

Alex returned her laugh. "Good point." He looked around the room. "Can I offer you anything? I don't know if you drink or not but I need something."

"I'm fine, thank you." She dug up the memory of food and water, annoyed with herself for letting the data slide away over the years. "But please, help yourself."

Alex went to the small refrigerator and took out a beer. "So, back to the original question." He snapped the lid off and pointed the open end of the bottle at her.
"What are you?"

"I'm—" She paused, searching for the right words. "I'm a mistake. An error."

"Okay." He sat down on the sofa.

Faith scampered off the workbench and moved to sit beside him. "It's a long story."

Alex spread his hands. "I have no job, no girlfriend and nowhere to go. Please."

"I guess I'm what you would call an abnormality. I'm not sure if there's a phrase for it in this era."

Alex took a drink before replying. "In this era," he repeated.

"I said it was a long story." She settled herself on the cushions. "In a nutshell—I'm a human soul trapped in a mechanical body. When I was in my twenties I caught a
fatal disease. Well, fatal for that time. My father, god bless him, tried to find a cure. He tripped across the discovery by accident, searching for a way to use robotics
to help him out in the laboratory. He realized he could put me into a robot body until a cure was found for my illness."

"Fascinating." The young man put the bottle down and studied her closely. "So you're a computer? He programmed you to replicate his daughter's mind?"

"No." She tapped her chest. "I am the daughter. Faith."

The dark-haired man tilted his head to one side. "Are you sure?"

"Very much so." Faith reached under her vest and unscrewed one panel. "Look here."

As he leaned in she held back a smile, waiting for his reaction.

This wasn't the first time she'd had this conversation.

"There's—" He swallowed loudly. "There's nothing inside." He coughed. "Some notepads, a pencil. But nothing else, nothing that would run a robot like yourself."

"Nothing," she echoed. "I am an empty shell. There's no transistors, microprocessors, data chips or whatever the current terms are." She rapped her claws against
her head, letting the hollow clang fill the room. "Therefore I am not a copy of anyone. I am who I am. And I am Faith."

He opened and closed his mouth three times before drawing back, the frown drawing his eyebrows together.

Faith closed the small hatch, taking a slight joy in seeing the confusion she'd caused.

"That's—" Alex made a noise. "That's incredible. Impossible." He gazed at the wall. "This could change everything. The possibilities—"

She put her tiny hand over his, careful not to draw blood from her sharp edges. "You can't tell anyone about me. What they'll do—" She shook her head. "They'll
destroy me."

He studied her for a second before answering. "Yes. Yes, they will." He cocked his head to one side. "There's got to be a way to reverse this."

Faith eyed him. "And reverse it to what? My body was buried—when my father died they took it from his workroom and placed it beside him in the vault."

"No one continued to work on your problem?"

"No one else knew." Faith shook her head, feeling the welcome slide of her neck joints. "When he put me in here it was an accident, a fluke. One minute I was in my
body on the table and then I was in this." She tapped her chest. "He never knew exactly how he did it, despite our many experiments afterward. Up until the day he
died he kept trying." She sighed. "After the funeral I barely escaped getting melted down with the rest of his 'inventions' and struck out on my own. I've been around
the world hiding, always afraid of being discovered and destroyed either accidentally or intentionally."

"Have you done any research? I mean—" Alex gestured at his workbench. "You know how to take care of yourself, I assume."

"Of course." Faith nodded. "From a mechanical point of view. I've also traveled and found little information on what happened to me. Seems there's a definite lack
of research on souls being transported into robotic bodies, despite the current trend in comics and anime."

Alex chuckled. "Well, I've got some time between jobs. Can I ask you to stay here with me and we'll see what we can find out?"

She didn't hesitate but she didn't say her thoughts out loud.

I trust you.

I like you.

She felt comfortable with him, more than she had with anyone since the accident.

"What year did this happen?" He pulled out a fresh notebook and flipped it open to show a blank page.

"1885." Faith smiled. "In London, England."

He scribbled notes. "How do you manage to travel?"

"I'm a toy." She flapped her arms. "I tuck nicely into luggage and boxes; stamped and addressed to various locations."

"Hmm." Alex didn't look up from his notes. "What do you use to pay for it?"

"I pick up cash here and there. And I also have a few gems sewn into the hem of my vest."

"Do you now?" Alex smiled. "If you want, we could get you more outfits. I'm sure there's plenty of doll clothing that would fit you."

She laughed. "That would be lovely. I know it's silly but I enjoy being clothed. I sewed the vest and pants years ago as an alternative to the dress Papa put on me. It's
a bit easier to be thought of as a male robot, if that makes any sense."

"You can sew?"

"I manage." She smiled and let out a wisp of smoke. "I'm not always lurking in back alleys, looking for kind men to clean me up. Depending on the situation I can
often sneak into stores through the ventilation shafts and get myself cleaned up to a degree."

"And if anyone finds you it looks like you're a toy, left behind by a kid." Alex rubbed his chin. "Amazing." He stretched out his hand. "Tell you what. You fund my
research and I promise I'll dedicate every waking moment I have to trying to figure out what happened to you and if it's reversible."

She placed her claws in his grip. "Deal."

He couldn't decide if this was the best of luck or if he was horribly, horribly cursed.

The tiny dragon presented him with the perfect problem--find out how she'd been created and see if he could duplicate it, or better, move her "soul" to another
vessel. He wasn't sure if he believed that she was the one true woman or if it was a beautifully created clone, the best of all AI's, but he did know it was the
opportunity of a lifetime.

He didn't know it would take most of his lifetime.

The money from Faith's gems went quickly, bleeding out as he hunted down rare and expensive books; fumbled through ancient diagrams and paid for their travels
overseas. But it was easy to make money—Alex would work as a mechanic, repairing what needed to be fixed while Faith played the role of a robot toy;
entertaining the children as they worked their way around the world. The months stretched into years with antagonizing hits and misses, the technical details of
reversing her father's last wish beyond their grasp.

And the world didn't stay still. It revolved around them with dizzying speed between visits to holy men to discuss their thoughts on restoring Faith to human form and
the need to research, research, research.

He didn't stay the same either.

As time went on he became more attached to Faith, staying up hours on end to discuss philosophy to psychology, wondering at the years she'd lived through and
enjoying her recollections of the life she'd had before her unfortunate accident.

As Alex moved into his thirties he found himself shrugging off the offers from concerned friends to set him up, to find a "good woman" to keep him company. The
few dates he went on held no interest other than to keep him from his research and from Faith.

Soon people stopped asking and allowed him to stay happy in his bachelorhood.

When artificial bodies became widely available he'd watched his friends buy robot women and men, programmed to meet their physical needs.

He hadn't entertained the idea for even a second although Faith had gently broached the subject more than once.

"I'm happy now," he'd protested.

"But..."

"No." Alex reached out and took her hand. "I'm happy to be with you. It's enough for me."

She fell silent as he showed her the screen advertising the newest model.

"If I could put you into that," he couldn't stop sounding cheerful, "You'd be able to live forever."

Faith cocked her head to one side and blinked. "But it wouldn't be with you."

Now it was his turn to be quiet as he studied the image.

"I just don't know what's left to do." Alex sighed as he looked at the android body lying on the worktable. They'd paid good money for the lifelike woman's form,
using the last of their savings. But it was a hollow shell, empty after Alex had pulled the android computer core out, leaving a hole where the data crystals had once
sat.

It sat alongside another metal dragon, a duplicate of Faith's body from tip to tail—except for whatever magical or mystical force kept her going. The extra dragon
was there for Alex to look over, a model to experiment on. It'd been strange to see herself sitting on the workshop table and stranger to see Alex working on it.
But now it seemed as if all their work, all of their time together had been for nothing.

"I don't know," Alex repeated.

Faith nodded, unsure what to say. They'd come home, finally, after years of travel. Alex's dark hair was gone, replaced with short gray and white strands and he
moved slowly now, the arthritis creeping through his bones and keeping his enthusiasm in check.

Now he shook his head, placing a hand atop the stack of file folders, dotted with data chips and scribbled notes. "Fifty years and I've failed you."

"No. No." She put her metal clawed hand atop his. "You never failed me, Alex."

She'd grown quite fond of him; her protector and companion. He was always there when she needed him, shunning possible romantic entanglements to avoid giving
her secret away. She had seen the curious looks women had given her, the muttered curses when she was alone with a prospective suitor, grumblings about how
Alex cared more about "that damned dragon" than about him or her.

Then they'd all moved on, her and Alex in one direction and the lover in another.

Now it'd all come back around to this—the small apartment, the littered workbench and the horrible, painful realization that there might well be no cure for her
problem.

"Faith—" Alex paused and she saw his face contort in pain.

He fell off the chair and onto the floor, twitching as he clutched at his heart.

"Damn it." She reached for the comms device and tapped in a call for help. He'd had a pacemaker installed a few years ago and was on the list for a full synthetic
heart.

She leaned in over him. "It's going to be okay. The medics will be here in a few minutes and--" Faith paused as he gripped her hand.

"I can't--" Alex drew a strained breath. "I'm so sorry I failed you. So sorry." Tears gathered in his eyes as his hand trembled. "I just wish--"

For one of the few times since she'd been banished to the robot dragon body Faith wished she could still cry. She blew out a small stream of steam, feeling his grip
start to lessen.

"You never did anything wrong by me, Alex." She let out a mechanical cough, as close as she could get to a sniffle. "I--" She paused, unsure if she dared say it.

"I do love you," he whispered and she saw the light beginning to dim in his eyes.

"And I love you." She leaned in and rubbed her metal snout against his cheek. "I'll miss you horribly, Alex Dumas."

The pounding of the door was the only sound Faith heard a few seconds later.

The pain in his chest was overwhelming, the crushing sensation choking the life out of him.

I'm so sorry—

He couldn't say it enough. He'd searched every library, spoken to every expert, every mystical man, every magician and every scientist who had anything to do with
the concept of transferring one's soul into an inanimate object.

The only one who had offered any comfort had been a holy man sitting under a tree in the Middle East. They'd climbed up the mountain together, carrying the small
tribute of fruit and berries to place in the bowl at the man's feet.

The monk hadn't shown any surprise at the tiny robot dragon crouching in front of him; the human kneeling beside her.

Alex had explained their situation, from their initial meeting to the years of searching for a cure. He felt safe giving all he knew to this man—there was little chance
of anyone discovering their secret and putting Faith in danger. They'd been very careful to keep that information secret, even at the chance of losing some contacts.
He wouldn't lose Faith to some government think tank who would chop her up, seeking the reason why she stayed alive.

The monk stroked Faith's cheek, talking to her as if he spoke to a robot dragon every other day.

"Your father loved you with all his heart. We are what love makes us."

He then nodded to Alex and returned to his mediation, leaving them in silence.

They'd climbed down the mountain the next day and never spoke of the visit again.

It'd taken years for him to realize it and up until the very end Alex had tried to deny it; tried to reason some way around it.

He'd fallen in love with her.

The other women in his life, they couldn't hold a candle to the intellectual genius bottled up in the tiny robot. Every time someone had come close it'd only taken a
glance over at Faith to kill off any feeling.

Alex wasn't dumb. He knew there was no way he'd be able to really be with Faith, but it didn't matter after a few years. As he got older and she remained the same it
was a reassuring thought, that she'd never age, never change.

Never leave him.

But now he was leaving her.

His vision dimmed, the long dark tunnel overtaking him as he drew one last strangled breath.

"Fai—"

Faith stood in the far corner, watching the medics work on Alex's lifeless body.

One technician shook his head. "Nothing else we can do. He's gone." He looked at his partner. "Any family on record?"

"No one." The older man looked around the apartment. "Guess he was some sort of toymaker. The landlord'll put all this up for sale, I bet. We can notify him on the
way out." He stood up. "That android body should bring in some good money."

His partner finished tapping in the details on his tablet. "I guess so. Have the apartment empty in a few days and life moves on. Wagon'll be here in a few minutes to
take the body out."

The medic walked over to the workshop table. "Looks like the guy had some mad skills. Love that little dragon." He looked around and spotted Faith in the corner.
"He had two of them. I'll ask the landlord if he's interested in selling them. My kids would love them for Christmas."

"We're good to go." The man placed a tag over Alex's stopped heart, gently pressing it against the cooling skin. "Sorry, old man. Guess it was your time." He made a
gesture with his hands. "Go in peace to those you love."

The two men packed up their gear and left.

Faith sighed and stepped out toward the lifeless body. She knelt down and listened to the silence, the deafening silence of a lost love.

"Oh, Alex." She closed her eyes and touched his chest.

A grinding noise shot through her ears, grating on her nerves.

Damned elbow joint.

Faith stood up and swung her arms around with a curse.

The oil can has got to be—

"I've got it." The familiar voice came from the worktable.

Faith froze.

What the—

She stared up at the android body.

It stayed still.

The antique oil can came into view, the thin snout edging out over the edge of the table.

The mechanical dragon carrying it followed.

If Faith could have fainted, she would have. Instead she stared at the robot as it jumped off the table and approached her.

"I thought—" The dragon paused, his steel eyebrows twisting into a frown.

The oil can dropped and bounced on the floor.

He clutched at the air with his left hand and Faith stepped up to take it, steadying him before he fell over.

"I—" He let out something akin to a sigh. "Faith."

"A—Alex?" She was afraid to say his name, terrified the mere mention would somehow wake her from this dream. "Is that you?"

He leaned against her for a second before straightening up. "I think so." He lifted his empty hand and stared at it, twisting the metal joints back and forth. "What the—
"

"It—" She fought to find the words, her heart leaping with joy. "You didn't die. You became this."

"But..." Alex gestured up at the android body lying on the table. "I don't want to think too much about this because then I might wake up and find out I'm dead, but why
didn't I go into that body?"

"I don't know. But what I do know is that now we're together." She picked up the oil can and applied a dash to his joints. "We can be together forever. Or until the
world ends. Whichever comes first."

It was hard to keep the excitement out of her voice.

"Yes." Alex laughed and tugged on her hand. "Yes. We can." He looked around the workshop/apartment before settling his gaze on the unmoving body.
He reached out and stroked the man's cheek before stepping back. "Let's get what we can and get going."

"Where—" Faith felt a bit lightheaded, caught between excitement and panic. "Where are we going?"

"Anywhere we want. Forever." He touched her snout with his hand. "As long as we're together I don't care where we go. And we've got all the time in the world to
figure it out." He offered her his arm. "May I?"

"Yes, please." She took his arm with a delighted giggle. "Together. Forever."

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