I stared, with my mouth slightly agape. A young person-- a human person, like me-- regarded me in the dark room, their arms folded across their chest.
They were an older child, with a dark coat wrapped around their body, no taller than me, or maybe even a little shorter, peering up at me. Their hands, which poked out of their sleeves, were smooth and skinned and, well, human, just like mine. Two lines crossed their round face, intersecting at an eye. Although I now wasn't naive enough to actually assume that anyone else was human at first sight, this person really looked the part, except for one dead giveaway-- the eye at the center of the X quadrisecting their face was the source of the light, and clearly mechanical. It glowed softly, illuminating the skin of their smooth face around it an eerie red. They looked puzzled, mostly, a slight frown on their face, but undoubtedly not nearly as confused as I looked.
"You're a person!" I blurted, indelicately.
"Of course I'm a person," the child said, humor dipping a bit into annoyance. The light flickered as as they blinked, a disconcerting effect on their already starkly-lit features. "What did you expect? A drone? Most of those were recycled recently."
"How old are you?"
That was an ironic, and somewhat condescending, question. I took a deep breath. I couldn't think of any reason to lie.
"Er... I think about three days. Well, that's how long I've been awake. Maybe about a week, but I remember sleeping for three nights." "Huh, about two hundred sixty thousand seconds... that's pretty young. I don't think I've met anyone as young as you so far. Usually I'm the youngest. Were you made for a purpose, or did he just get bored?"
"Conversant." Their tone implied the 'obviously.'
"No, Conversant didn't make me," I said, my face heating slightly at my inability to keep up. I felt as though this conversation was leaving me more baffled than when we had started talking.
"The Surgeon," I said, wishing I knew her name. I probably should have been more suspicious that she refused to give me one.
"Hmm. I have no clue who that is."
It seemed we had arrived at an impasse.
"It seems we've arrived at an impasse," I said.
"What? It’s just a drainage waste system. Oh, a turn of phrase.” They blinked, the light dimming for a moment as they narrowed their eyes in thought. "Call me Palavar. There, chasm crossed. What's your name?"
"I don't have one."
Did human count? Judging by the reactions so far, I decided I did not want to reveal that to this kid right away. "No."
"So... what do you call yourself?"
I looked down at myself, and thought about it hard. Hard enough to feel the prick of a headache creeping in. "Uh, really just, 'I,' mostly..."
"'Eye'? Not the worst name..."
"No, I-- I, as in, myself," I said, hastily. With Conversant around, I absolutely did not want to be known by the moniker, designation, title, label, appellation or psuedonym 'Eye.' "I said 'I' jokingly because it's the, uh, pronoun. No one's given me a designation to use yet."
"Huh, how unusually careless of him. He likes to make sure everyone's accounted for. You don't even have a number?"
"No, I said, the Surgeon was the one who made me, not Conversant." It seemed as though given a choice, I would still rather be claimed by a murderous cyborg that at least claimed a passing resemblance to humanity than an intelligence that manifested as a cluster of disconcerting eyes. How has Conversant come to be? He didn't resemble a human at all, and the Surgeon had called him artificial... but she herself was artificial and still looked and acted very human...
"Uh, where did Conversant come from?" I blurted. Palaver had just been watching me think silently. It seemed that either they didn't have a strong opinion on what was going on, or they just had a lot of time to kill.
"What do you mean? He's always been here. He's an old part of the old city."
I had a sinking feeling deep in my chest that this line of questioning wouldn't get me anywhere, and I'd been here long enough as is. I wanted to ask them what day it was, or how long I had been asleep, but they wouldn't know the answers to those questions either. Instead, I finally looked around the room for my backpack.
Palavar's eye was more than bright enough to illuminate the room. It was smaller than I had feared it had been in the dark, but still spacious. Rather than a door it seemed Palaver had come in through an archway constructed of the same stone as the floor, walls, and ceiling. Beyond the grey outline of the archway was more darkness, as black as the sightless void I'd been lying in alone for who-knows-how-long. Maybe this was Conversant's trash chute. The dripping sound came from somewhere beyond. Maybe there was a waterway or channel down there? I suspected, from the total lack of light, that it was underground, although when I thought about that again I considered that it could just be nighttime. Night, overcast, and raining…? Ah, that was a question that Palaver could definitely answer.
"Where am I?" I asked this mysterious child.
"Oh, under Conversant, in the old drainage waste system. There’s a shorter term… that's right, the sewers. I come down here for walks sometimes. Conversant dumps old projects down here sometimes, although I think he's slowing down in his old age. Or he's working on something really big, could be... there was a lot of whirling in the protective coating today. Pretty unusual unless there's been a big gust of waste from the outside and he's got a lot to process. But I think he was just working on you, huh? You don't look like much."
"Is it day or night?"
"Why's that matter? Oh, yeah, you only perceive light and sound. That's so limited! It's night right now. Hmm, maybe we should call you blind."
"There's no need to be mean..."
Palaver laughed. It was a spritely sound, not mean in the slightest, and it made me feel a bit better, even if I was the butt of their jokes. And to be fair to them, I was an easy target. "What sort of name do you want? You can't just know what you don't want, do you? You didn't like Eye, so you've got to like something. Oh, I should say, it's a good sign you've got opinions. The ones that don't are always super boring to talk to. Sometimes I'll flag them to be scrapped for fun."
"For fun..." Maybe my first impression had been wrong. That seemed mean... wasn't that basically murder?"
"I want..." Palaver was right. Deep in my heart, I did know what I wanted. "I want a human name. An old one. Like someone who would live in this city."
"Hmm... an old human name... you are pretty strange. Let's see... I always liked the name Percival, since it sounds like Palaver, but you can't have that one. It's mine. How about... Ywain? That's from the same story."
"Yeah... Ywain." I turned the name over in my mind and in my mouth. I liked it. "What's it mean?"
"I don't know. It's the name of a knight. He's in a lot of stories. If I had to sum up his personality traits in the stories quickly, I'd say... he's forgetful, but brave."
That didn't really sound like my combination of traits at all-- I thought my memory was solid, considering I could remember things I'd never seen, and I wouldn't say I was brave in the slightest-- but it wasn't a bad combination of traits overall, so at least that was flattering. Most importantly, I liked how the name sounded spoke aloud-- that is, not like anyone else's names that I had met so far, so no one would think that I was anything like them by name. I really hated the idea that had cropped up when Palaver said 'eye', that someone might think that Conversant had created me-- and I didn't want to be associated with the backstabbing Surgeon or the creepy Doctor, either. So Ywain it was.
"I like it," I said, because that was simpler than what I was thinking, and it wasn't exactly a lie. "It's a good name." That part I felt was one-hundred-percent true.
"Okay, Ywain you are, then." Palaver extended their hand out to me, illuminated by the red light of their glowing eye. "Don't you want to get out of here before the tide rises and the sewer floods again?"
"Wh-what?! Floods?! Of course I do!" I grabbed Palaver's hand like I'd already started drowning, and Palaver pulled me along the dark tunnel to I-had-no-idea-where.