Rusty (Rest of the Story)

This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning

Finally the bell went, signalling it was time to return to their lessons.  Adam nudged Toby then turned and ran for their classroom.  Toby started to follow, but his steps slowed as he saw the girl who currently had the arm approach the drone and offer it… before turning and throwing it into the narrow gap between two buildings.  All the children laughed, then turned and headed toward their classrooms.

Toby held back, watching the rest of the children leave the playground.  When most had gone, especially those who’d tormented the drone, he checked no one was looking then ran to the narrow gap between the two buildings.  By turning sideways he was able to squeeze in easily enough, and soon retrieved the drone’s arm.

When he came back out he found Rusty nearby, but not close enough to scare him.  Toby cautiously approached, with the arm held out in front of him.

“This is yours,” he said, his voice tight as the Drone gently took it from his hand.

“It is,” replied the Drone, its deep voice crackling with static.  “Thank you master Toby.  You are very kind.”

Then the Drone dipped forward and spread one of its arms, in what could only be a formal bow.  Toby grinned back, his chest swelling.

“You had better get to class,” said Rusty.  “You don’t want to be late.”

Toby glanced over his shoulder and realised the last few dawdlers were almost out of sight.  He turned and sprinted for his classroom… but slowed enough to turn and wave at Rusty, then carried on with a smile on his face.

* * *

Three months passed.  Toby always took the time to smile when he saw Rusty, but Adam steered him away from actually trying to talk to the robot.  The older children were always teasing Rusty in one way or another. Adam insisted they avoid anything which would make the older children turn on Toby and he, and Toby reluctantly agreed.

Toby never joined in with the teasing, though.  Not even when Adam started to join in.  Instead Toby stayed away from Adam when that mood took him, and tried to ignore the way Rusty was being treated.

One lunchtime, when the suns were blazing down and the children were allowed to play on the field, Toby took on the challenge of climbing a particularly tall tree.  They weren’t supposed to climb any of the trees, especially not one this big, but a discussion about whether he could climb the large tree had turned into a dare, and at eight years old a dare was something he couldn’t back away from.

The dare wasn’t just to climb the tree, but to reach the top and wave his hand above the canopy.  That would make him King of the Tree, and for a short while king amongst his peers and the older children.  He was sure he could do it, and the standing he’d gain was worth any slight risk.  Besides, the tree didn’t look that high.  Not from the ground.

Five minutes later and he was realising it really was that high.  He was already nine metres up, high enough that he could hear the kids below but not see them very easily.  He was most of the way up the tree, but the branches above were getting thin and had changed from brown and strong to green and flexible.  This was the most difficult part of the climb.

Could he stop and go down?  He’d already climbed far higher than anyone had expected.  He’d still have that to boast of… but it wasn’t enough.  He wanted to win!  He wanted to be the King, for as long as it lasted.

He glanced around, looking back toward the school buildings.  Seeing out from the tree was a lot easier than seeing down so he was able to confirm there were no teachers approaching.  They would quickly stop the fun, but none were in sight.  Rusty was visible though, thirty metres away or more, and Toby was certain the old drone was staring straight back at him and shaking its head.

Just for a moment Toby considered going back down, but the cheers from below were starting to be mixed with jeers, with shouts that he was being a coward, that he couldn’t do it.  He gritted his teeth and started to climb further.

He made it up another two metres.  Now the branches were barely as thick as two of his fingers together, and they were starting to bend more than a little under his weight.  Part of him was worried about that, but it was drowned out by the adrenaline and the cries of “To the Top, To the Top,” from below.

Toby looked up.  Another four branches.  That’s all it would take for him to be able to get his hand out of the leaves and visible to those looking for the sign.  Just another four branches and he’d be the first person at the school to ever manage it.

You can do it, he told himself.  You’re small enough and light enough.  The other kids couldn’t do it because they’re too big.  You can do it!

Besides, even if a branch did break he’d be able to grab those below.  They were dense enough that he wouldn’t fall far.  It would be fine!  He moved up… one branch… two.  The branches still held his weight… but the trunk started to tilt to the right.  Toby hung on tightly, wrapping his arms and legs around the thin trunk, but it just carried on tilting until it moved beyond horizontal and he was hanging with his head lower than his body.

His arms were starting to burn already.  He’d tired himself just climbing the tree.  Now, when he most needed his strength, it was fading away.  He tilted his head up which meant he was looking down.  There were no branches below him, not close anyway.  The tilt of the trunk had left him hanging outside of the main foliage.  Some five metres below there were some branches, but he was above the weaker end of even those.  Would they stop his fall?  Could they even hold his weight?

Everyone below was shouting now.  They’d moved enough that they could see his predicament.  Some were yelling encouragement to just hang on while others cheered at the chance to see him fall and shouted that he should just let go.  He ignored all of them.  For the first time he realised he could be in real danger.  His world was filled by the trunk he was clinging to, and his hands that were slipping off of it.  He tried to hold on tighter but he wasn’t strong enough… and then his hands slipped off completely.

He fell head first, his legs holding on for just long enough to ensure that.  His outstretched hands smacked into the lower branches sooner than he’d expected.  Rather than stopping him they just whipped at his arms and face.  He crashed through several more branches, terror gripping him as he desperately tried to grab them, then he broke through and saw only the ground as it rushed toward him.  He would have screamed if he could get the breath out of his lungs, but there wasn’t time.

His right hand struck the ground first, smacking into it hard enough to send pain spearing through him.  Then his whole body crashed to a stop.

His hand was still blazing with pain, but strangely nothing else hurt… and he was still hanging upside down.  The crowd had gone silent, and while the pain in his hand was excruciating he instinctively knew things should be much, much worse.

The world started to turn around him, then he found himself facing Rusty, though the drone was upside down from his point of view.  From the gentle glow he realised it was Rusty’s force fields which were holding him, Rusty’s fields which had saved him.  The world started to tilt to the side as Rusty slowly turned him the right way up.

Suddenly teachers were rushing up to Toby, taking hold of him, checking him over even as they chastised him.  They checked his injured hand and started fussing over it.  Rusty pulled back as that happened, and Toby noticed that no one thanked the drone or even acknowledged its presence.

That was wrong!  Rusty had saved him from… well, he didn’t want to think what from.  But Rusty had saved him and now no one was even saying thank you to the drone.  Toby tried to move toward the drone, but the teachers were much bigger than him and they insisted he stay put while the medic came to treat his hand.

Toby strained to get a glimpse of Rusty, to call out his thanks, but the drone was hidden by the people huddled around him.  The teachers commented on Toby’s tears, told him it was fine to cry after a shock like that, but none of them understood.  His tears weren’t for himself, they were for the drone who’d saved him.  They were for Rusty, a hero who was being completely ignored.

* * *

Once Toby’s hand was stabilized, and the teachers were convinced he hadn’t taken a hit to the head, he was shipped off to hospital for a full check-up.  His father arrived soon after and sat with him while the doctors treated both his hand and the scratches he’d picked up falling through the branches.

During the whole time Toby’s father didn’t once tell him off.  He did ask if Toby had learnt any lessons.  Toby nodded and replied that he’d learnt to stop climbing when the branches turned green.  His father laughed at that, hugged him gently and said that was a good lesson to learn.

His father drove the car home as he often liked to, though the automated systems were always waiting to step in if any danger developed.  Only then did Toby feel he was able to mention Rusty, how the drone had saved him and how everyone had ignored it.

“Hmm,” said Toby’s father.  “Old Rusty.  I remember him but I hadn’t thought about him in years.  He was at that school when I went there.”

“So he’s old?”

Toby’s father chuckled.  “Oh, he’s old alright.  I know I seem old to you but Rusty… well, my grandfather remembered Rusty being at the school when he went.  He once told me that his grandfather remembered being at school with Rusty around, and that even then Rusty had been there a long time.  So that’s your great-great-great-grandfather and Rusty was there before he was.”

“But why did people ignore Rusty when he was the one who saved me?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because Rusty has been there for as long as anyone can remember so they just ignore him out of habit.  Put that together with his scrap-work appearance and it’s easy to push Rusty into the background.”  He frowned.  “You know… I think something similar happened a little while after I moved on from the school.  There was a rumour that Rusty saved a young girl from drowning in the school lake, but not much was made of it.  Maybe that’s one reason the school lets Rusty hang around.  Or maybe they’ve just forgotten Rusty is there most of the time.”

“Why is he there?”

“I really have no idea.  I seem to remember him clearing rubbish at times, but maybe that was just to find spare parts.  I did ask what sort of drone Rusty was, a few times if I remember rightly, but no one knew.  They said even Rusty didn’t know any more.  Whatever he once was, he’d forgotten somewhere along the line.”

“He’s much bigger than normal drones.”

“He is.  That might be a sign that he’s really old.  I don’t know.”

Toby sat quietly for a few minutes before speaking again.

“Why does everyone tease Rusty?  Some of the children are really mean to him.”

Toby’s father sighed again.  “I don’t know the answer to that.  It seems to be something that is passed down from the older kids to the younger, and those younger kids grow older and pass it down in turn.  Maybe Rusty is just a really easy target, one which will never lash out in return or report them so they get into trouble.”

“It doesn’t seem right.  Did you ever do it?”

“I… yes.  I did.  I just called him names a few times but one time I stole a piece of junk from him.  The moment I’d done it I felt bad though.  I gave it back to Rusty as soon as I could.  As soon as my friends and the older children weren’t around.  After that I stayed out of teasing him.”

“But you didn’t stop them?  You didn’t tell them it was wrong?”

“No, Toby.  I didn’t.  And you’re right… I should have.”

Toby lapsed into silence again, his mind working frantically.  He thought about Rusty having endured lifetimes of abuse without anyone having the strength to stand up and say no.  Toby wasn’t sure if he had that strength yet… but he was determined to get it somehow.

* * *

Toby went looking for Rusty the next day.  Once he found the drone and was certain none of the other children were close by he moved closer and pulled a piece of paper out of his bag.  It was a picture he’d drawn, one showing Rusty, a much brighter, shinier Rusty, holding Toby suspended upside down having stopped him plummeting to the ground.

He tentatively handed it over to the drone who stared at it for long seconds then sketched another wobbly bow.

“Thank you, master Toby,” Rusty said, still in the scratchy voice.  “I will treasure this greatly.”

Toby beamed a smile, but the moment was spoilt as two older boys rushed in and tried to snatch at the picture.  Somehow Rusty managed to float up and away from them enough that they just missed it.

The drone popped a compartment on his chest open, placed the picture within it and sealed it shut again.  The boys immediately turned to trying to prise it open, but that proved impossible.  So instead one of them snapped off one of Rusty’s arms and the other pulled away a bright square of metal which had been protecting Rusty’s side.  They ran off with their prizes, laughing as they went.

Toby’s world turned red.  Anger pounded through his veins and he wanted nothing more than to punish the boys, even though they were at least two years older than him.  He started to rush after them, but a gentle tug on his arm from Rusty’s fields kept him in place.

“Thank you master Toby,” Rusty said, so quietly that only Toby could possibly hear it.  “But don’t worry.  They always leave the parts where I can find them and reach them, if with difficulty sometimes.  They don’t mean any real harm, just mischief.  Once they get bored or the bell goes I will recover the parts.”

“But it’s wrong!”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t cause me any real harm and children will be children.  Some of them will, at least.  Others are far kinder.  Others like you.  But in this case that kindness could bring you problems.  I have seen that happen before.  Thank you for the picture, I will treasure it for always, but you do not want to spend time with me.

“If you do then the other children will start to pick on you too, and you will find it much harder to deal with than I do.  I’ve seen that happen before and it never ends well.  Can you promise me to stay away?  As a thank you for saving you?”

“I… I don’t… but… I suppose so.”

“I need to hear you say it, master Toby.”

“Alright,” said Toby sullenly.  “I promise I won’t come and see you.”

“Good.  Thank you again for the picture.”

“Wait!  I didn’t… I need to say thank you.  For saving me.”

“You are most welcome.  Now go and have a good life.”

Rusty tousled Toby’s hair with its fields, then drifted away.  Toby stood and watched the drone go, his heart heavy.  It wasn’t right that Rusty should be alone… but how could Toby go against what Rusty had asked him to do?  It was too much for him to take in, too much for him to process, but he was certain he wouldn’t give up on being Rusty’s friend.  And one way or another he was determined to pay his friend back… no matter how long it took!

* * *

Toby didn’t like it, but he stayed away from Rusty as the drone had asked.  Days turned into weeks.  The urge to seek Rusty out eased but never totally faded.  He never joined in with the teasing though, not even when it was just name calling.

The other children didn’t call him out on that.  While no one would say it openly, they all knew that Rusty had saved Toby the day he fell from the tree.  That seemed to give Toby a pass when it came to not teasing the drone, but they made it pretty clear that actually being seen with Rusty would push that tolerance to breaking point.

Not joining in didn’t stop Toby from seeing the way Rusty was being treated, from feeling bad every time the drone was teased or had parts removed by fleet-footed children.  Toby noticed it, and saw how well Rusty took it.  Rusty never seemed to grow angry or annoyed, exasperated or irritated.  He just took it all, day after day, and from what Toby’s dad had said year after year.

Finally Toby decided it had to stop.  Not now.  He knew he couldn’t stop it now.  But once he was a grown-up he’d be able to do something.  Once he was an adult all the school kids would have to listen to him, so would the teachers.  When he was grown up things would change.  He’d make sure of that.

* * *

One lunchtime, a little over six months after being saved by Rusty, Toby was out on the school field.  He’d drifted away from his friends while they tormented Rusty and hadn’t yet felt ready to rejoin them so he was further onto the field than anyone else.

Technically they shouldn’t be on there at all.  It was still too muddy.  But until a teacher spotted them and called them off they were staying put.

Suddenly a screech tore the sky above them, joined almost immediately by a deep rumbling boom which was more felt than heard.  Toby looked up, seeing the usual pattern of traffic nearby but nothing above — nothing was allowed to fly over a school normally.  Then he saw that something was over the school, and it was coming down fast.  Really fast!

It was a ship.  Not a massive one but not small, probably a hundred metres long, and decorated in swirling shades of dark purple and black.  Two police ships were dogging it, shooting at it, but they were having no luck penetrating the ship’s shields.

Then it lashed out at them, blowing both police ships clean out of the sky.  It carried on firing, destroying a dozen more private vehicles as everyone in the air tried to dodge away.

Toby and the other children just stood stunned, staring at the ship as it plunged down toward them.  Toby was certain it was going to smash into the field hard enough to bury itself, but running didn’t even occur to him.  This was too big to take in, too massive to relate to himself.

At the last moment the ship slowed rapidly.  It slammed into the ground with enough force to wobble Toby’s legs but it didn’t take any damage.

Toby was the closest to the ship, so when doors opened along its side he was the first to see what was within.  He might be young but he instantly recognised the figures as Valaxar troopers.  Their midnight black armour covered with spikes made them unmistakable.

But what were they doing here?  The war was supposed to be a dozen light years away!  What would they be doing here?  What would they be doing at his school?

Shots started slamming into the Valaxar.  Toby turned to see the school’s three defensive drones firing at the intruders, but their weapons weren’t even penetrating the Valaxar shields.  The school’s defensive drones were mostly there to deal with minor scuffles at most, not fighting against battle-hardened warriors.  Then the Valaxar started firing back.  Within seconds all three school drones were melting piles of scrap.

One of the Valaxar turned its head toward Toby.  He couldn’t see its face through the helmet.  He couldn’t see anything except the glossy reflective surface and a deep red gleam from the Valaxar’s eye slits.

That alone was enough to break the spell Toby had been under.  That was enough to tell him that he was in far greater danger than he’d ever been before.  Falling out of the tree was nothing compared to the fear he felt now.

He turned and sprinted toward the school buildings and saw that the other children were well ahead of him.  Most were already inside or almost there, though Toby was certain that would make no difference to the Valaxar.  They had to get as far away as possible and hope the military arrived in time to save everyone.

Toby noticed Rusty standing near a wall, apparently having escaped the Valaxar’s notice so far.  He yelled as he ran, urging Rusty to slip around the nearby corner, to get out of sight and then to get to safety.

Toby didn’t have time to tell whether Rusty listened.  In his haste he tripped over a hole in the grass and went flying forward, slamming into the ground so hard he was winded.  He managed to roll onto his back.  The Valaxar trooper caught up almost immediately and stood there towering over Toby.

Toby could see the beam weapon the Valaxar carried, but the trooper had left that hanging on its strap.  Toby knew why.  He’d heard the tales.  The Valaxar liked to make their kills as bloody as possible.  This one had a huge axe in its hand which it raised above its head, moving slowly so Toby had plenty of time to take things in.  The axe looked old, the handle dented and pitted, but the edge was razor sharp and gleaming.

Toby knew he should try to get away but he still couldn’t breathe.  He couldn’t even muster the energy to try and roll out of the way of the huge axe.

* * *

Rusty shook his head as Toby tripped and fell in front of the Valaxar, dreading what was to come.  Not that the Valaxar would have let Toby or any of the children live, but maybe some defensive forces would arrive in time to head off the Valaxar.

Not in time for Toby.  Not in time for the boy who’d drawn Rusty a picture, a picture Rusty still prized and kept close.  Not in time for Toby who’d been shouting warnings to Rusty even as he fled the Valaxar.

Rusty found himself measuring the distance to Toby even as he knew it was pointless.  He couldn’t possibly reach Toby in time to save him.  On the other hand the corner of the building, and at least temporary safety for Rusty, were tantalisingly close.

No one would blame him for retreating.  Rusty was old.  Rusty was slow.  Rusty was more scrapyard than drone now.  Rusty was ancient, unarmed and couldn’t even remember what his original purpose had been.  Rusty fighting the Valaxar would be ridiculous, and would end with him being vaporised in seconds.

Despite all that Rusty had to make a decision.  He could run, and most probably survive, or risk everything he was and try to save Toby.

Run or fight.  Rusty studied the situation for another second, watching the Valaxar towering over Toby lift its axe, then he made the choice.  Power flowed into his systems and he lurched into motion… toward the corner, then round it and safely out of sight of the Valaxar… and of the end Toby was about to meet.

* * *

The Valaxar bellowed something at Toby, its voice so loud that it rattled around Toby’s head.  If it was meant to scare him then it had certainly worked, but he refused to shut his eyes.  Instead he tried to scramble backwards even as he struggled to draw half-breaths as his body slowly recovered from being winded.

The Valaxar bellowed again, but this time Toby was sure it was laughing at his efforts.  It stepped forward, easily making up the distance Toby had opened up, and swung the axe down in a vicious arc.

Toby couldn’t help but flinch and squeeze his eyes close to shut, all his bravery used up… but nothing struck him.  Through his slitted eyes he saw a blinding burst of light which was followed by a scream from the Valaxar, a sound much higher pitched than the previous roars.

Toby opened his eyes, blinking away spots, and stared at the Valaxar.  The trooper’s arm disappeared completely from the shoulder down.  The arm, and more importantly the axe, were simply gone!

The Valaxar stopped screaming after a few seconds and scrambled for its gun, eyes boring into Toby’s.  Toby knew it was going to kill him with it, but a whooshing sound drew his attention away.  It resolved into a small, fast moving, blindingly white military drone.  Like the Valaxar, Toby immediately recognised it by its shape but for totally different reasons.  Military class Excalibur drones were legendary.

The secret of the drone’s manufacture had been lost hundreds of years before and the few that remained in the galaxy were each worth a small task fleet of ships and troopers.  Stories and vids about them were massively popular, but Toby hadn’t even known his government had an Excalibur drone on their side… let alone that it would be so far from the front line of the war.

The drone smashed into the Valaxar at speed, cracking its armour with a deafening crunch and sending it flying.  The drone unleashed a blaze of power which vaporised the body before it could land.

The drone hovered for a few moments, lashing out at those Valaxar that were getting close to the school buildings.  None could withstand even a single strike from its powerful weapons.

Some Valaxar fired back, but their weapons didn’t come close to piercing the drone’s shields.  The drone even shrugged off a powerful blast from the ship, its shields protecting Toby as well.

Then the drone was moving again, flying toward the ship even as it finished off the last of the Valaxar who hadn’t fled back into their vessel.

But before it moved off it did something which shocked Toby even more than the Valaxar attack, the drone’s sudden intervention or the devastation the drone was now causing.  The drone reached out with its fields and tousled his hair in a way that was strangely familiar.

The Valaxar ship screeched its way into the air with the drone following, but Toby’s attention was elsewhere.  He forced himself up, just about able to breath normally now, and ran towards the corner where Rusty must have escaped.

Toby rounded the corner and his stomach churned at the sight that met his eyes.  He saw Rusty, or the pieces of Rusty.  The drone had been torn apart, the junk-yard pieces that comprised the drone were scattered over the area.

Tears started to prick at Toby’s eyes and he had trouble breathing again.  He’d hoped that Rusty had escaped, had found somewhere to shelter, until the Excalibur drone saved them all.  It hadn’t happened.

Then Toby frowned.  He dashed at his eyes to clear the tears and moved closer.  All the parts of Rusty were there… or rather all the parts of Rusty that could be seen, but nothing else.  Nothing that could be the core of Rusty.  These were the visible parts of Rusty, but there had to be something nestling at the heart.  It wasn’t here, so where was it?

Toby slowly looked up, staring into the sky where the Valaxar ship was spewing dark smoke.  He couldn’t see the white blur of the Excalibur drone, but he could see the bright bursts of power as it continued to carve up the Valaxar ship.  Toby grinned as the impossible thought started to feel real.

“Go on Rusty!” he whispered.  “Smash that ship!  And thank you.  Again!”

* * *

Three hours later the action was over but the excitement was far from draining away.  Toby’s parents had arrived, as had all the other children’s parents.  With them were hundreds of police, military forces and military drones.

Despite that, no one could figure out where the hero of the moment, the Excalibur drone, had gone… and they really wanted to know.  Toby had been questioned and had been honest, telling everything he knew to be true.  He left out his suspicion about who the Excalibur drone actually was, but he didn’t feel bad about that.  They were only asking him what he knew!

In fact Toby had been questioned time and again, by military officers and by politicians, until he’d started to get so upset by the repeated questioning that his mother had stepped in and started shouting at his questioners.  They’d finally, with bad grace, accepted that he couldn’t tell them anything useful.

A movement near the school buildings caught Toby’s eye.  He smiled at the familiar sight, then tugged on his father’s arm.

“Dad!  I want to go and make sure Rusty is alright.  He saved me that day I fell from the tree and it’s not right that no one is looking out for him.”

Toby’s mother was off arguing with a military colonel, so the decision rested with his father who smiled and nodded.  Toby shouted thanks over his shoulder as he rushed to Rusty.

Rusty looked just the same as always, every bit of junk stuck on in the same place.  Toby slowed as he reached the drone, frowning as he wondered if he’d been mistaken.  There had been an awful lot going on.  Maybe he’d imagined what he saw?  Or maybe Rusty really had dumped his outer shell but only to be able to hide better?

Then the old drone ruffled Toby’s hair with its fields and all doubt vanished.

“It was you!” said Toby in an excited whisper.  “I knew it.  Thank you!  Thank you for saving me!  Again!”

“It was a pleasure, master Toby, but I need you to do something in return.  I need you to keep this secret.  I need you to not tell anyone what you know.”

“Of course!  I won’t tell anyone.  But… but why?  You’d be a hero!  Everyone wants to find you to say thank you!”

Rusty sighed.  “No.  They want to find me to recruit me.  They want to find me to draw me back into fighting and killing.  I had enough of that many, many years ago.  I decided it was time to stop killing and to find something else to do.

“I disguised myself and wandered for some time.  Eventually I ended up here and found the school.  Hearing the laughter, seeing all the children playing… it eased something within me.  I only meant to stay for a few weeks but as time passed I never felt like leaving.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Oh… I really don’t know.  I stopped counting somewhere around three hundred years.”

“Three hundred years!  That’s…”

Toby trailed off.  Truth be told, anything more than ten years seemed an eternity.  Three hundred was just… an eternity too.  Then he frowned again.

“But you killed the Valaxar.  You did that because of me.”

“No!  I did that because of them.  I did it to save you, you and the other children.  I didn’t enjoy it and I wish I hadn’t had to do it but I couldn’t let them hurt you all.  Especially not you, not after you gave me that drawing.  But I will not kill again.”

“What about if the Valaxar come back?”

“They won’t.  Word will soon get around.  Once others know that there’s a chance your government has an Excalibur drone on their side, and a secret one at that, none of them will dare to attack.  Now, do you think you can keep my secret?  I would really like to stay here and watch the children play and grow, even if they do tease me at times.”

“Of course!”

Toby leaned in and gave the cobbled together drone as big a hug as he could manage.

“Thank you, master Toby.  Now I can see your mother looking worried.  You’d better go back to her.”

“Can I speak to you again?  Properly?”

“Not yet, but yes.  Eventually.  When you return with children of your own and there is no danger of you being teased.”

“Oh!  That’s forever away.”

The drone tousled his hair one more time.

“I know, but forever comes eventually.  Now off you go.”

* * *

Rusty watched the young boy run back to his mother, the sight helping to still his heavy heart.  He hadn’t wanted to ever fight again, to ever kill again.  He already had the blood of millions on his conscience.

He’d tried to ensure the causes he’d fought for were just, but he knew innocents would still be killed on all sides in a conflict, and some of them died at his hands.

He’d put that behind him for centuries but today it had come crashing back into his world.  He’d been faced with a stark choice… to become the sleek killing machine once again, or to leave Toby and the other children to die.

It hadn’t been a choice.  Not really.  He’d watched the children play for too long to even consider abandoning them.  Hell, in some cases he could remember watching the children’s great-great-great-grandparents playing, and he remembered the connections between every generation.

But he’d enjoyed talking with Toby.  Many of the children teased him.  It was what they did and it didn’t worry him.  In fact he enjoyed being the focus, knowing that it meant there was a little less of the teasing doled out on their schoolmates because of it.

But Toby had a kinder heart than many of the others, and speaking with him had lightened Rusty’s mood even after the killing.  Rusty looked forward to when they could speak again in fifteen or twenty years when Rusty brought his own children to the school, and again when he brought his grandchildren.

A long time for humans, but for Rusty it seemed hardly any time at all.  And in the meantime he would continue to watch over the children, to nudge them gently to safety where possible and to save them from their own adventures when it wasn’t.  Toby wasn’t the first child Rusty had saved from falling from a tree, and he wouldn’t be the last… but Rusty suspected he might remain the nicest.

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