Little Victoria clapped in delight when Papa brought home the robot. It was tall and elegant, sleek silver filigreed with bronze, and it went to work right away. Mama didn’t have to complain about dish water ruining her hands anymore. Papa didn’t grumble about paying a hired man to prune the yard. And the best thing, as far as Victoria was concerned, was the fact the she now had someone who didn’t get tired of her questions.
“Frederick,” she would ask, “Why doesn’t the family across the road have a robot?”
“Because, Miss Victoria,” he would answer, dusting a lamp, “They are not as well off as your family is fortunate to be.”
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“It means that I am expensive,” he said as his eyelid panels slid up to curve his eye lights into a smile. “And your parents are wealthy.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “Like how Papa talks about the new car that flies with a hover engine, instead of a lev’tation spell?”
“Like so,” Frederick agreed. He reached to dust the row of family portraits which stretched back many generations. “Even commoners can use magic, but imports from our new trade partners are significant status symbols.”
“What’s a status simmal?”
Frederick patiently answered questions until Mama called for her, though Victoria would be back later. Frederick knew so much, and he didn’t tell her to go play by herself!
It didn’t take long for the grownups to capitalize on this, and set up tutoring sessions that would prepare Victoria for school. She was precocious, or so they always told her, so she would do well to ready herself for an early start. It would make the family look good.
Victoria didn’t mind. Frederick was more patient than any other tutor, and he didn’t insist that they stick to sums and letters. Explanations for how the world worked were far more interesting.
He would also play with her, when the lessons were done and her parents hadn’t assigned him another task yet. Dolls, ball, even chase. Though his heavy frame wasn’t as agile as a child’s, and he wasn’t suited to it.
At first this simply meant that Victoria won all the races, which was only proper. But then came the afternoon when a sharp turn in the garden’s slippery leaves led to a most horrendous crash.
When Papa arrived, it was to a flood of tears from Victoria, who was unharmed, and a broken ankle joint for Frederick. Papa was displeased.
He declared no more running; this was irresponsible on both their parts; didn’t they know how costly the replacement parts would be?
This made Victoria cry harder, and Mama finally had to give her a sweet to calm her down. Frederick would be all right; it would just take a while to fix. For the time being, Mama and Papa moved Frederick to a chair indoors, and instructed him to go over capital letters with Victoria.
Frederick agreed readily, though Victoria took some convincing. She got another sweet to encourage good behavior. Finally she was scribbling away with sticky fingers, and her parents left the room.
“Letters are boring,” Victoria declared, casting away the pen. “I want to do magic lessons instead.”
“I have not been programmed to instruct on this subject,” Frederick said.
“That’s okay,” Victoria told him, jumping down. “There’s a book. You can read it really fast, then tell me what it says.” She ran off, returning moments later with a tome she’d climbed her parents’ bookshelf to get. “Here it is!”
“This does appear to be a beginner’s course of magical instruction,” Frederick said. He flipped through it with his customary speed, absorbing the knowledge. “This should help you get a head start on that subject as well. To begin, you will need a feather.”
“Be right back.” Victoria again ran to her parents’ room, this time to abuse a pillow until some goosedown fell out. “Here!” She presented him with several small feathers.
“Very good. Place them on the table, and take up a position conducive to concentration.”
Victoria clambered into the chair and shook the feathers from her hand. She stared them down. “Now what?”
“Now attempt to move them with your mind. Do not be ashamed if you cannot; that is rare on the first try. There is a step two for assistance.”
As expected, nothing happened. “You try it!”
Frederick also stared at the feathers, to no effect. “On to step two,” he announced. He slid the book forward, pointing to the opalescent gemstone on the cover. “Place your non-dominant hand upon this charged focus stone, and reach your other toward the feather you wish to move.”
After a brief explanation of dominant hands, Victoria did so. This time, the feather lifted slightly.
“I did it! Look, look!”
“Well done, Miss Victoria. Surely you will be the top of your class.”
“Your turn!” she pushed the book toward him.
Seeing no reason why not to, the robot placed one metal hand on the magic stone, and reached the other toward the feathers. He applied his thoughts.
Magical charge crackled across both arms in a visible arc, and the feathers exploded upward.
Victoria yelped in surprise, then delight. She laughed up at the drifting bits of goosedown that covered the table like snow. She wouldn’t hear a word of Frederick’s apologies, and raced off to get more feathers.
By the time Mama thought to check on them, Victoria could levitate a feather without the use of a focus stone, and Frederick could levitate Victoria.
“Mama, look! I’m flying!” the child called to her shocked mother from near the ceiling. The response that she got was not the one she’d expected.
Mama yelled, ordered her down, and confiscated the book. Papa appeared and sent her to her room. Victoria went, not understanding why. Frederick stayed silent in the chair.
Victoria was confined to her room for a long, lonely time, and when Mama finally came for her, it was with bad news.
Robots weren’t meant for magic, her mother told her. It did bad things to their systems, and anyway, it would make them too powerful to be trusted. Yes, this was unfortunate to have Frederick break so soon, especially since he had been such a help about the house, but Victoria would just have to learn to get along with another. Papa would replace him soon. At least they hadn’t already paid for the ankle repairs.
Victoria took the news poorly. He was her friend, not a tool to replace; surely they could fix him like they were going to fix his ankle?
Mama said no. The damage was too extensive, never mind the fact that he had seemed fine the last time Victoria had seen him. And no, she wouldn’t get to say goodbye. The recycling people had already taken him away.
Victoria pitched a tantrum of the type that the household hadn’t seen in years. In the end, her mother locked her in her room and promised her a puppy if she would behave. Victoria refused. She was told to stay there without dinner.
So Victoria did, crying angry tears and throwing toys against the wall. She tried to use magic to make more of a mess, but couldn’t calm down enough to concentrate. She ended up staring out a window disconsolately. If she strained, she could see the corner of the trash bin by the back door, and the road that the recycling people must have taken.
It was when the sun was lowering into twilight that Victoria saw the lid of the trash bin move.
She watched in shock as a familiar metal arm lifted it, and Frederick climbed out. He stood wobbling on one foot, with his seams glowing the orange that they did when he was sleeping, plugged in to charge. But he wasn’t sleeping now.
Her face pressed to the window, Victoria stared as the orange glow was replaced by a white-blue charge like the one that had crackled from the magic book. Frederick turned to look at her. She waved madly, yelling his name.
The robot waved back, with a glance at the rest of the house. He blew her a kiss in the gathering dark, then looked toward the sky.
The blue magic glowed brighter, and he lifted off as light as a feather.
Victoria watched as he disappeared, just one more star in the sky. She promised herself two things.
She would find him again someday.
And she would teach the next robot in secret.