"Go on, Otis! Fetch the stick! There's a good boy!"
Tommy laughed joyously as the golden-furred hound hurried along the dew-strewn grass to retrieve the hurled branch. He and his family had dwelt in these woods for as long as he could remember, and they were the perfect playground for him.
Standing a short distance away, hidden in the shade of the trees, a young woman watched the boy spending time with his beloved pet.
The child was a reassuring sight. Years of waiting and wondering, as well as months of research - tracing circulated rumours and alleged sightings - had led her here. Taking in the boy's features, she smiled.
That blond hair. Those blazing eyes.
He had to be theirs. He must be.
She slowly stepped forward, hoping to greet him calmly - only for a twig to snap sharply underneath her foot, revealing her presence.
Tommy's ears pricked up at the sound. Peeking behind him, he spotted the stranger, and his father's words rushed back to him.
Stay away from them, Tommy. They seek to destroy us.
Panicking, the child sped off through the woodland, dodging and weaving between trees and shrubs - the dog following at his heels.
"Wait!" the woman cried. "It's OK! I'm not going to hurt you!"
The boy didn't stop, nor acknowledge her call. The visitor knew there was nothing else for it. Without any further hesitation, she gave chase after the child.
She couldn't lose the trail. Not now.
A short while later, a clearing appeared amongst the towering trees - in which stood a large wooden cabin, built beside a beautiful, shallow pond.
As the boy hurried to the door and rushed inside, calling for his father all the while, the young lady stopped, and took time to admire the magnificent but rustic structure. It was beautifully picturesque - like something straight out of a fairy tale.
And just like those mystical towers of fantasy, this residence seemed to be closely guarded.
"Go away!" a sharp voice called out from within. "Leave this place, and my son, alone! Humans are not welcome here!"
The accent was unmistakable. A delicate Scottish twang.
Despite the harshness of the words the dweller had spoken, the woman's heart skipped a beat out of pure joy.
"Archie!" she called back, an ecstatic sob catching in her throat. "Archie Crosswire! It's really you in there, isn't it?"
The door creaked on its hinges as it slowly pulled open. Keeping his guard up, Archie took a few steps forward, and stared in puzzlement at the unfamiliar woman before him.
"How do you know who I am?" he asked, concerned.
The woman was stunned. Her racing heart slowed, and began to sink down within her chest as she witnessed the robot's confusion.
"Oh no," she whispered, deeply saddened. "Please... please don't say you've forgotten me. I never forgot you."
Archie dared to move closer. As his eyes met those of the young lady, the realisation took hold, and he gasped loudly - a mixture of delight and shock.
The young woman nodded.
"Hello, Archie," she said.
Archie was scarcely able to believe what he was seeing. Whooping and hollering, he rushed towards her blindly. Not even the pull of twenty wild stallions could have dragged him back.
"Anna!" he squealed. "Oh, Anna, my baby! My baby!"
Throwing his arms around her, he embraced her so tightly that he almost squeezed the air right out of the human's lungs. Anna, for her part, didn't mind one jot - returning the hug with equal joy and love.
As the robot slowly released her, he looked her up and down - shaking his head in bemusement.
"Look at you!" he wheezed. "You got so big! How long has it been?"
Archie's eyes widened.
"Is that all?" he answered. "Believe me, it's felt like centuries. I always longed to know what happened to you - that you were all right. Now, finally, you've come back to us."
Anna hesitated, reluctant to say anything more - but she didn't want to mislead the man she'd called "father" all through her earliest years.
"You... you know I can't stay forever, right?"
"Of course not," he said. "But even a minute with you is so precious."
Taking her by the hand, he led her towards the cabin door.
"Come on in," he insisted, excited. "I know everyone will be thrilled to see you."
The cabin's interior consisted of one large room, which was very sparely furnished, but which retained a strong cosy feel. A log burning stove provided heat, and candles on the wall provided the light. There was no kitchen or bathroom - which, given that the occupants were robots, made perfect sense.
Two beds, a double and a single, were enclosed with wooden screens, whilst two cobbled-together bookcases, filled with aged tomes that had most likely been left behind by campers, offered the only inside entertainment.
Two sofas beside the stove offered the ideal place to sit and chat. That was exactly what the young boy was doing right now, with another male figure: instantly recognisable to Anna, and who sent sparks of delight racing through her bloodstream.
A grin frozen onto his face, Archie led Anna up towards the pair.
"Jack?" he cooed. "Look who's come to visit!"
Jack's quick glance over his shoulder was followed milliseconds later by him leaping out of his cushioned seat, as though he had received an electric shock, and embracing Anna himself, giggling hysterically with joy.
"Anna! Honey! I'm so happy to see you again!"
"I'm really happy to see you too, Uncle Jack."
Stepping back, he winked.
"Actually," he chuckled, "It's Stepdad Jack now."
He held up his hands for her to inspect. There, on one of his left-hand fingers, was an elegant band of gold.
Anna, delightfully surprised, turned to face Archie, seeking some sort of confirmation. The robot, only too happy to oblige, held up his own hands - a matching ring resting on the exact same finger.
As he held out this ring-clad hand to Jack, the red-headed robot took it, and was pulled into Archie's waiting arms - the pair sharing a passionate kiss.
"It's not legal or recognised, you understand," Jack explained, once the couple's locked lips had parted. "After all, we robots aren't true citizens, apparently. But, we had a commitment ceremony, just between us... and as far as we're concerned, it's as valid as any other marriage."
Archie nodded in agreement.
Meanwhile, the little boy had been watching the reunion scene unfold with no small amount of fascination, but remained clueless as to what was going on. As Archie pulled away from his husband and noticed the child standing there, he slapped his forehead in a gesture of forgetfulness.
"Oh, goodness!" he gasped. "Where are my manners? Anna, this is Tommy... our son. He's a robot, just like us. Tommy - this is the little girl, or rather, the woman, we told you about. The baby we loved, who would have been your big sister. Anna."
Swiftly stepping up to Anna's side, Jack whispered in her ear.
"He was never meant as a replacement, or anything like that," he explained. "That's why he's a boy - because you were always our little girl. Archie and I were just so devastated after you were taken away from us. We wanted a family again. We needed a family. So, we built Tommy. He's about twenty years old, chronologically speaking, but just like us, he'll never age. He'll be our dear seven-year-old son for all time."
"I understand," Anna whispered back in tender tones. "You wanted a child that couldn't be taken away from you. I'm happy you created him. After I had to leave, Theodora and James were wonderful parents to me, and still are - but so were you. You deserved the chance to be wonderful parents to someone else."
Crouching down in front of Tommy, she offered him her hand to shake.
"Hello, Tommy. Nice to meet you."
Tommy took her hand reluctantly at first, still a little nervous at being in the presence of an actual living, breathing human - but, seeing Anna's friendly smile, relaxed and shook it politely.
Tommy's loyal pet, curious, padded his way up to Anna, sniffing her as though examining her: behaviour for which the visitor rewarded him with a head pat.
"That's my puppy Otis," Tommy explained.
"Another robot," Jack added. "My first foray into non-humanoid mechanics. He came out great, don't you think?"
"He's just like a real dog," Anna agreed, chuckling as she watched the sandy-coloured canine wildly wagging his tail. "Good boy, Otis."
"Well, you're all caught up with us," Archie chirped. "Now you just have to tell us what you've been up to."
Gesturing, he invited the family to gather on the sofas.
The chatter continued merrily until nightfall. Anna told Archie, Jack and Tommy all about the lovely, peaceful life she'd led in Pleasantview with the Campbells. She called them "Mum" and "Dad" now, but that choice had been hers, rather than something they'd insisted on themselves.
(Archie and Jack had no objection. Theodora and James had raised her for longer than they had, and by all accounts, had done so extremely well. They'd earned those titles.)
"I was a straight "A" student in high school," Anna told her proud former fathers, "and I won a scholarship to Académie La Tour. It was there, after a few more years of hitting the books, that I graduated summa cum laude."
"What was your major?" Archie asked.
"Robotics!" Archie and Jack both screamed in delight.
"The time I spent with you made me fascinated with artificial intelligence," Anna explained. "I believe that robots are now getting so advanced, the emotions and thoughts they have are justifiably as autonomous and genuine as those of any human. And if that can be proved to be the case, their feelings will need to be considered. In time, they might even be recognised as fellow citizens."
She hung her head.
"I only wish that could have happened to you."
"It's all right," Archie insisted. "It sounds like Theodora and James have given you a wonderful life, and you've done well for yourself, which is always what I wanted for you more than anything. Everything has worked out well for us, too. And who knows? With smart and gifted people like you fighting for our rights, maybe humans and robots will share a glorious mutual future one day."
"I certainly hope so. Then again... humans still need to learn to fully accept other humans first."
A yawning sound burst forth from Tommy's mouth, which he politely tried to stifle with his hand.
"He needs to rest," Jack explained. "Recharge his battery."
"I suppose it is getting late," Anna conceded, getting up herself. "I live over in Veronaville these days - I guess I should head back, or else I won't be home before sunrise."
"It was really nice to meet you, Anna," Tommy piped up. "I hope you'll come and see us soon."
"Of course I will," Anna replied.
Leaning over, she gave the boy a loving, sisterly hug.
"You have two of the best daddies in the world, you know," she told him. "Promise me that you'll always be a good boy - that you'll make them very proud."
"I will," came the reply. "I promise."
"Good for you, little bro."
All three of the Crosswire-Sparxes led Anna back to the cabin door. After a few more hugs and emotional goodbyes, she headed back into the forest - her robotic family watching her closely until, eventually, she vanished from their sight.
It was on a dark night like this that Anna, the abandoned infant, had first come into their lives. She was taken away from them on another. Now, many years later, yet another night had fallen, and she was leaving them once again - no longer a little girl, but a clever, confident woman. But this time, they knew that she wouldn't be staying away for too long.
Yes, their intelligence was artificial.
But the bond of love between them was, and always had been, utterly real.