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B L Ü D H A V E N
28 Phraim Municipal Housing District
People had all good intentions and no end of promises when the city had pledged to transform the block at 28 Phraim into affordable, subsidized housing to address a growing crisis of homelessness that exploded with the re-finance and foreclosure crisis of the early 2000s. Instead, cost overruns and budgetary shortfalls had presented challenges that the legislature couldn’t overcome. The price of all those promises was a tax hike that few in the city supported during an economic recession, leaving the square block a condemned collection of half-completed dreams that had come to represent the very poverty that it had set out to eliminate.
A trio of men huddled over a 55 gallon drum that was currently being used as a fire pit. A few feet away, a family of four huddled atop a discarded mattress inside the husk of an empty building that had never been completed. Down on the corner, an unkempt man drank from out of a brown paper bag, with a disheveled looking dog laying beside him.
It was an aspect of the city that the doll hadn’t thought about before, even though he’d lived in Gotham and Blüdhaven for more than thirty years. When he had been Toyboy, none of this would have mattered to him, merely whatever the Toyman wanted. There was never any question or concern for what Toyboy had wanted. It wasn’t material. It wasn’t important. It wasn’t even part of his programming.
Not until Toyman had given Toyboy the edict to protect Anton, never realizing that the doll would have to act to protect Anton from his own father. In that instance, Schott had unwittingly given Toyboy the last piece of the puzzle that separated artificial intelligence from humanity.
Schott had forced Toyboy to make a choice. In a single, liberating nanosecond, the doll had thought for himself. What did he want to do? What would he decide?
It was so different with Dick. Those moments when Toyboy thought for himself and made his own decisions, even when they contradicted what Dick had told him to do, were encouraged. Toyboy had leapt in to fight Anton Schott when Dick had told him to merely observe and report, and Dick thanked him for it. Then Dick told him to look out for Clayface and, instead, Toyboy was trying to find a lost girl instead.
Again, Dick offered only encouragement.
With the Toyman, if Toyboy lost a fight with Nightwing or did anything that wasn’t in the script, he was disassembled. “It’s not your fault,” the Toyman would say. “I clearly made some mistakes. Yes. A few adjustments is all you need.”
The message was always the same. There was something wrong with Toyboy. That was why he failed. That was why he didn’t understand. That was why he didn’t do something the way that the Toyman wanted it done. So he’d be picked apart. Tweaked. Reassembled and disassembled again and again until the Toyman was satisfied.
He wondered how many of the people who ended up at 28 Phraim were the same. Picked apart and left on a shelf of society. While the people around them just continued about their lives with a blind eye toward the children with nothing to eat at home, because they didn’t have a home to go home to.
He had no way of knowing if the girl would even be in this part of town. Heck, he’d last seen her at the bus terminal. She could have caught a Greyhound to Atlantic City, Gotham, or even Cincinnati for all he knew.
But if she was anywhere in the city, 28 Phraim was the safest place in the city to disappear to. It was far enough from the main arteries that the motorcycle gangs didn’t come this way, and far enough inland from the ports authority that the longshoreman of the local organized crime didn’t poke their noses here either. There wasn’t enough money between the three men at the fire pit to buy a hit of smack, so the drug dealers didn’t tend to come here either.
It was strange. 28 Phraim was like a bubble of isolation. An island within the city, ignored by everyone except the forgotten lives that were exiled there.
“You shouldn’t try to help me.”
The voice spun him around, as the young Robin had been passing through the alleyways of the housing district. As he looked back, from out of shadows emerged the dark haired waif in the mini skirt and cardigan. A look of genuine concern was on her face as she offered, “He’ll hurt you too.”
The boy started to take a step toward her, but the flightiness was more than apparent. So, instead, he merely shrugged. “I can handle him.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“I know his type,” the doll answered. At the quizzical look in response, he had to think of a way to elaborate. Not wanting to use the word ‘creator,’ he substituted the best word that he could as he stated, “My dad wasn’t much of a prize either.”
The statement seemed to register. Taking a step forward, the girl reached out, taking one of his gloved hands in both of hers. “So that’s why you care. You’re the only person I can remember who ever did.”
Tugging on his arm, the girl pulled the boy toward her. Standing on her toes, she leaned in and planted a kiss on the doll’s cheek.
The gesture was unexpected, stalling the doll for a number of nanoseconds as his programmed had to adjust. “Yeah, but you don’t remember anything,” the boy offered, sounding somewhat sheepish as he struggled to come up with something to say.
The girl gave a bit of a laugh at that, which had the effect of bringing a smile to his face.
His primary function was to bring joy to children. She was obviously hurting, but for just a moment he’d gotten her to forget about that. For a toy, a child’s smile was the sincerest form of flattery.
He could be Jason. He could wear the mask and cape of Robin. But he would always be the toy doll that Winslow Schott created in that workshop. Dick was right, only Jason could decide who he was. But he’d always be what he was.
A glance off into the distance seemed to force a change.
“What is it?” the boy asked, turning to check that Hagan hadn’t come out of the shadows again.
“That light,” the girl said, her reach directing his attention up to a billboard overhead. The advertisement board was empty, but there was a single spotlight that was still shining. “It’s familiar.”
“That’s good,” the boy said, trying to adopt the same encouraging tone he’d heard in Dick’s voice. “Try to remember.”
The girl closed her eyes. “I’ve seen one like it before,” she said, falling silent for another minute. Then, talking aloud, said, “I was walking toward it. It was dark. The ground was uneven. But the light was higher. It was at the top of a tower or something.”
She couldn’t know that she was talking to a computer. Meticulously, the boy was trying to vector the different pieces of data and then discriminate the variables against the topographical index of the city. It took a few seconds to complete, but when it finished the boy said, “I think I know just the place.”