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"In Pursuit Of A Sound" by 4A Charmian Luo Jiamin (Merit Award)

The world was many things, but most of all, it was loud.

As the Bullet roared into the station, loud and thrumming, Eva glanced anxiously at the sea of anticipating faces out the window, a sharp sour swelling in her chest. She alighted hastily when the hissing doors drew open, her belongings clutched tight in her fists. Slipping through the crowd, she kept her head low, shoving her hearing aids in her pockets. She wasn’t expecting anyone, not this time.

She was halfway to the exit when a familiar shade of electric blue caught her eye. She knew that colour.

Eva turned, and standing before her with usual poise and elegance, Echo greeted her with a beam.

Something bright sparked within her at the sight of her caretaker. It had been nearly thirteen years, but they had barely changed as she grew. Those electric blue components still pieced together their skin, and their features, while moulded over a human’s, seemed to easily transcend the barrier of perfection that eluded so many others. Their hair was artificially glossy, a shade of midnight black that became tainted brown in the sunlight, and those perfectly-shaped lips, each word clear as crystal.

“Eva, it’s nice to see you again.”

The relief that flooded her came like a gushing storm. They had stayed, after all.

Eva rushed to overwhelm the Sentinel in an embrace. They were cool blue to the touch. Thank you, it’s nice to be back, she signed, ignoring the curious stares that others gave as she moved her hands. I was last here in this world a year ago. So much has changed, and so much has not.

Echo only smiled, and nodded. They knew what she meant.

And it was then at the station, in the midst of the crowd, that Eva heard the Sound for the first time. It was loud, with a high and low pitch both at once, as if the singing of the winds and the unrestrained roar of locomotives were mended together in a symphony. It felt powerful, and on her, it latched its hold, unyielding.

It came from somewhere beyond the train tracks, beyond the oppressive size of the Bullet, from somewhere she could not see, sung by someone - something - she did not know. But Echo was already moving away from her, towards the exit.

After a moment’s hesitation, Eva caught up with them. She touched their arm, signing wait, wait, in half hopes that the Sound would come again. They waited, it did not.

Strangely, Eva felt left behind, betrayed in the absence of it, whatever it was.

Echo’s lips moved. “What is it?”

Eva shook her head. Nothing important, only...she took pause to think. There was...and for the first time her hands failed her. They could not possibly describe the Sound, it was too large, too great for just human words, human hands. There was this noise, she concluded underwhelmingly.

Upon comprehending, Echo’s features creased, resulting in a strange child-like look of confusion. Their lips shaped her name in steel. “Eva, what noise?”

She attempted to put her experience into words. It was loud, and messy, but quite possibly the clearest thing I’ve ever heard. It was from the space behind the train tracks, and I can’t believe that you didn’t hear it when I’m supposed to be-

The realization came to her like the Bullet, like breakthrough, tearing through the center of her chest. She could feel the blood drain from her face, that lightheaded feeling pulling back within.

All along, she had been reading Echo’s lips, the shaping of her words that by technology made clear, her hearing aids still tangled in her pockets. And yet the sound came, which could only mean…which meant…which meant…

“Eva, are you feeling well?” They must have arrived at the same realization.

As if bewitched, Eva spun back to the source of the Sound. There, just beyond the metal-hard edges of the Bullet, there was a shift in the light, a crossing of shadow. Her heart leapt a thousand miles and into her throat when a winged creature, black and luminant, landed gracefully in the space, staring back at her. Too fearful and awed to pry away, she held its gaze, gasping, breathless and frozen.

Then the connection broke as she felt cool fingers wrapping around her arm.

Her legs suddenly went weak, and she pitched forwards, but Echo caught her and propped her back on her feet.

“You are not well,” they said, their gaze intense.

With that, they turned, pushing them both through the crowd, and the moving mass surged them onwards, writhing like a mechanical tidal wave, always progressing, advancing. Wait, wait, she signed, but Echo did not see. And so Eva could only turn back, helpless, as the strange creature disappeared.

Her arrival back at her apartment was underwhelming to say the least.

Echo had carried her bridal-style through the door, declared that she had come down with an unfortunate fever, and required rest. She was laid on her bed and tucked in, despite her protests that she was nearly fourteen and perfectly fine. They then rushed to the kitchen to program the cook to ready a round of refreshments.

You have that beam on your face, Eva signed when they returned, a bowl of piping-hot soup in their hands. It suggests that I would soon be subjected to the your worst kind of torture.

“The kind where I care for you?”

The worst kind, and the best. We humans really aren’t self-sufficient, are we?

That dark, bright smile. “That’s what you have me for.”

Unable to forget the figure of that creature and its Sound, the rest of the day fell away in a sleepless daze. Once, her parents had checked in with her, wishing her well, but were too occupied to devote much of their time to tending to their daughter, much less one who barely spoke. But she did not necessarily mind. She had Echo, a Sentinel specifically designed to raise her. It was here, in this sweetened-pink room, that she had first steps and first dreams and first milk teeth. It was here that she had learnt of love and acceptance, that they were not so much words and voice, but skin and metal plates and wire hearts.

To keep her mind occupied, she summoned her notebook, surfing through the archived pages of nature observatories, listening intently to the recordings of the wild creatures that once roamed parts of the world. There were the chimpanzees in the zoos, the lions, the bears. But these animals were not The Creature. Instead, from an archived forum for nature-spotting enthusiasts, she gathered that they were once called birds.

Birds were creatures of the sky and had a special cry the ancients called birdsong. Some were silver-white, those were doves. Some were turquoise, those were hummingbirds, and the creature that had approached her, dark as breaking day, was a myna. She turned the Creature’s name on her hands, fascinated, and shelved it away for future reference.

After dinner, Eva tilted her head to look at Echo. The same burning question still lingered with her. She had to know.

Echo, I’m really glad you stayed, but what exactly changed my parent’s minds?

The Sentinel looked up and sighed, a hurt look passing briefly over their features. They moved to sit by Eva’s side on the bed, and took her hand in theirs, pressing circles on her palm. “Your parents told me that they would be occupied with working on a new project, and since you’ll be back from the district soon, they resolved to postpone my decommissioning.”

Eva was curious now. What project?

“Had you noticed the works behind the train tracks as you alighted? That space, when cleared, would hold space for the construction of more railroads. Your parents, as excellent architects, had been selected to work on it.”

That’s great news, but they seemed rather…occupied.

“Things changed when you left, Eva. The environmentalists groups have been campaigning against this project since it was announced. According to their records, the space reserved for new tracks had always been a thriving forest, a sacred land of sorts. It was known as the Kintsugi.”

A forest? Behind the tracks?

“It had been well-protected for years. But don’t you worry too much, love. They tend to unravel at the end, and some broken things we have to let go of, even if it aches.”

We’re not talking about the project anymore, are we?

“I am old, Eva, advanced for my species," in their words, there was a lingering exhaustion. "Soon, I will be decommissioned.”

Even the thought of it brought pinpricks into Eva's eyes. But we can stay together, make the world change for us. There will be hope to fight for it.

Echo’s lips twisted into a soundless laugh. “You’ve grown up, but your heart is all just the same.”

Even if you go, the words left on her hands were hard bitter. No one will be like you, not really.

Their hand in hers, cold and warm. A gentle, aching squeeze. “I appreciate that, Eva, know that if there was the barest hope I would have gone with you. But we are after all just broken things, and this world is far from sentimental.”

Eva heard the Sound again that night.

It came whistling through the darkness, a melodic breeze in the stifling warm night. She scrambled to her window and tapped it open, beholding the starless sky above them, as the creature sang on. And she could see it now, perched on the ledge of another’s apartment window, crying out it’s verse. The myna, thought extinct, had returned.

The song drew her to it, that invisible, mysterious thing. Putting her weight out the window, now bare of glass, she thrust her head out. Her hearing aids were still untouched on the bedside table, but the Sound was in her, lodged in the space between her ears and in her head.

You sing to me. Why me? She thought, and the myna heard her, for they replied: Because you kept your heart, and you dared to dream. Come to Kintsugi, we are waiting.

Her blood ran cold. The Kintsugi? Coincidence or not, she yearned for an explanation. But the wind howled, threatening to sweep her away.

Then the cool touch of frantic hands wound themselves around her waist, pulling her forcefully back. Eva gasped, shaking on her bed, waking from the hold of the spell. She was back in her room, as Echo stood before her, an expression torn between grief and mistrust clawing through their features. Boring into her, those electric blue orbs demanded an explanation.

The Sound, Eva signed when she could think clearly again. It was there. And the creature.

The Sentinel did not do so much as metaphorically blink an eye.

She tried again. Echo, please, I realized it was my mistake. Thank you a thousand times for saving me.

They had still not moved. Instead, slow-creeping horror walked into Eva’s bones as she realized that they were stiff, as if frozen solid. Their hair swung unresponsively in the breeze, their fingers laid untwitching by their sides. Those blue orbs stared blankly into the abyss that was her. They were motionless.

Eva picked herself off the floor, trembling, and as she rose to the Sentinent’s height she saw her reflection off their metal skin. It couldn’t be; it must be. Echo, she would have said their name, to soothe her fears, to speak this away, had she not been empty and mute and broken. In that inability, her throat ached. With shaking fingers she pulled up the information on their status, dread sunk her chest as the single word ‘terminated’ rose to greet her. The fatal cause: delayed repairs.

We are after all just broken things.

The tears that shortly followed came of their own will, uncommanded and unprogrammed. They fell to the ground with the same grace that the myna possessed, soundless and speaking all at once. With gentle hands, Eva reached for and pried upon their maintenance flap, concealed behind all that beautiful hair, strangling her own hoarse cry as she pulled the wires apart, and they came out like a last breath, without resistance, without fight. The broken parts rolled into her lap, she could not pick it up. A quiet rage burned in her. She would not let another broken thing go so soundlessly destroyed.

Kintsugi. She knew now where she had to go.

It was almost dawn when she reached the station, a bundle of cloth swaddled in her hands.

There were no scheduled trains, the platform was bare and empty. A ghost of what it had been in the light.

By hiding in the shadows of their turned backs, she nimbly avoided the patrolmen, and the attending robot Labourers, walking aimlessly by, paid her no mind. They stared blankly into the distance, reading an unseen code, and proceeded about their orders, loading goods for the next train. Their eyes were dull and empty. Not that brilliant, electric blue.

The rails toward the end of the tracks were easy enough to scale. By securing a foot on its rounded surface, a swift push with her other, she was over and down the other side. An alarm rang near, and then came the distant shouts, but she could not bring herself to care. She removed her hearing aids and let them clatter to the floor. It would not matter now, what came in the end.

Without looking back, she sprinted into the darkness of the foriegn, the embrace of the familiar.

The Kintsugi was much larger than she expected. From the jumbled array of trees that loomed over her, the forest was large, much larger than any room she had ever been in. It was sprawling, tumbling over itself in no apparent hurry. Without her hearing aids, she heard no birdsong, no siren call, only the masking silence cloaked itself around her form. Still, she pressed on.

Enough time had passed, though she was not sure how much, scaling the enormous roots and the gaping puddles of sky, that she began to question her purpose. Perhaps she had always been mad, and the Sound was just a fever-dream of her gullible mind. Perhaps the fairytales were just too easy to believe, the word together too light to hold much weight.

But then, before she could collapse on her knees, defeated and despairing, she spied the myna, perched on a broken stump of a tree. There was a strange glint in its coal-black eye, and to her it tilted its head, watching, waiting. Why have you come? It asked.

What you said to me last night. Perhaps there is still hope, she thought.

At her answer, the myna looked pleased. Then, we wait.

And waited they did, until the ground thundered beneath her as they drew near. Only at the last moment did she turn back, and the open arms of her running parents crashed into her.

The force toppled her backwards, falling, but father and mother had their arms around her, and onto the mossy forest ground they fell together and the sun felt warm on her upturned face and she felt the rumble of their chests as they laughed and cried out in joyful relief and her eyes slid closed and finally, finally, finally.

“Eva…” Mother’s lips shaped the words hurriedly as she held Eva in a tight embrace. “...heavens…we thought…groups....took you…away…worried sick…never again.”

But they were not the sentimental type, so they brushed themselves off of the forest grime and stood once the moment passed. Eva let them help her to her feet. She noticed the first time the number of patrolmen that fanned around them. Her disappearance-slash-trespassing had been made a greater concern than she expected.

Mother, Father, I owe you an explanation. But before this goes away, I must know: Will you have me as I am?

“Hardly … question,” Father replied. “You … daughter … what of us … parents?”

She shook her head. I did not mean it that way. I must ask for a favour.

“Name it.”

You must reconsider this project. The Kintsugi cannot be destroyed.

Upon understanding, Father and Mother exchanged glances. To her worst fears, she could not read their faces. The silence dragged on horribly long, like a scalpel across her chest. In desperation, she unwrapped the swaddle of cloth in her hands, blossoming open to reveal cool-blue skin, a Sentinel’s head. She could feel their collective gaze on her. Her parents and the officers all.

Realization dawned on them. Mother gasped, and Father turned away.

Please, this is my one wish. Progress comes at a price, and that price, like all others, must be balanced. And Echo taught me, what is broken can still be fixed, and some are not broken at all.

When they finally looked at her again, minds-made, both their eyes, like hers, were shining with mist. They clutched her hand in theirs. “Daughter, it will not be easy, but we will see through the end that this place will remain untouched. Echo’s death will not be in vain.”

At that, her heart flooded so full with relief she feared it may burst. Thank you.

Soon after the patrolmen had been dismissed and all had settled, Father held out to Eva her abandoned hearing aids. She shook her head.

It’s alright. She smiled at him. Some did not require fixing, because they had not been broken at all. She had a solution of her own.

At long last, she turned to the myna, who looked pleased, cooing and ruffling its feathers. It laid its head on the cool-blue of Echo’s forehead, that metal coffin, and was still.

And the sound crinkling out towards the end, like the metallic blossoms of spring, the myna awoke and spoke in it’s birdsong.

“Eva, it’s nice to see you again.”

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