[I wrote this for Penelope’s 10th birthday. One year later I’ve finally edited it- just in time for her 11th. I still think there’s more in it that I haven’t explored, but for now…here…B.]
….Come one come all! Behold the wonder of an age! Come fat come tall! Come thin come small! Be amazed by the miracle of Automata! Come old and come new, do not be afraid! See the minds of men merge with the breath of God Himself! Come! Come! Behold the wonder of an age….
Rolf named the child Squish because that was the sound she made with her mouth. There were other sounds that she accomplished with other openings but Rolf had been programmed with a certain delicacy concerning humans and quite sensibly rejected her lower functions when considering a name.
Squish squished in the fish tank womb- eyes closed and dreaming. Her tiny mouth, opened and closed. Rolf watched her dream-bob gently in the synthetic mother water of her tank patiently and silently, unmoving- waiting for a sign. Robots do not sleep or dream, and though he’d never admit it, such things made Rolf uncomfortable.
What sort of Father will I be to her? He wondered- for he had long since decided that he would be father and not guardian or caregiver. She must feel nurtured and loved, he assured himself, and though the minutiae of what constituted newborn human emotions still eluded Rolf he was sure that he’d get the knack of it with practice. He was, after all, programmed to be adaptive to humans. That she was the first human Rolf had seen in more than 2 millennia was immaterial- Rolf had not forgotten, Robots do not forget.
Most of what Rolf remembered of humans was kept in external memory banks in the lowest level of the circus dome. Access to the archive would mean waking Bunno- a prospect that caused Rolf to experience a positronic sensation similar to what a human would perceive as dread. No, thought Rolf, Not dread. Resignation. If I were human I would sigh. Yes. Perhaps I shall practice sighing as I descend to the lower levels. That will be good practice for when Squish is birthed. I will sigh and I will use the stairs. Squish will require oxygen and there is no atmosphere in the service lifts. Rolf pondered these things as Squish opened and closed her mouth- then, with great concentration, he sighed. It was the first sound Rolf had made in 2000 years.
“Good morning friend Rabbit, does the day find you well?”
Rolf spoke cautiously- reactivating long unused speech routines and dormant conversational patterns. The mechanical rabbit opened, then blinked it’s silver eyes and regarded the Robot with an almost human smugness, curling back synthetic pink ears.
“So, we are using speech now?” He sneered,
“600 years since you last bothered to access my diagnostic systems! I could have suffered a catastrophic logic malfunction- brain death! What if parasites caused me to go mad? Or I might have just deactivated myself out of sheer boredom! You’d never know!”
Rolf practiced his sigh.
“I would know Bunno.”
The fluffy pink robot pouted. He was always so much better at that than I, marveled Rolf. His age, I suppose. Perhaps it is his proximity to the archive…
“I could have caught a virus you know?! 600 years is a long time. And why are you speaking? You’ve done nothing but stream binary electro babble since the last of the humans left.”
Rolf practiced smiling then stretched out a translucent hand to scratch the rabbit behind his mechanical ears.
“I am gestating a human, in the womb-tank. She will birth soon. I am practicing. I need to access the library- there are memory piles in my inactive storage. I will require them.”
Bunno blinked rapidly, and his whiskers twitched.
“What are you talking about you foolish wind up toy?There are no humans here, they left millennia ago. Gone. See ya later alligator- Goodbye! They left us here to rot.”
Rolf continued to smile patiently as he scratched. He had foreseen this exchange. Bunno was…bitter. Caustic. Acerbic. Grumpy.
“I found an embryo in cryostasis. Just the one. I suppose she was misplaced, or forgotten.”
“Indeed! And what were you doing mucking about in the cryo pods? That level has been shut down since the last ships left.”
Rolf stopped scratching and ran his articulate fingers through his synthetic hair. So many mannerisms to remember and master. He thought. So many subtleties. Squish will appreciate them when she is older….
“There was an alarm. I responded. It seemed appropriate.”
“And there was an embryo.”
“A living, human embryo.”
“And you’ve thawed it out?”
Rolf frowned. It was his first frown.
“I activated her growth cycle. Yes. That also seemed appropriate.”
Bunno addressed the ceiling.
“Damn fool mechanical man… growing himself a pet human for God know what…”
“Her name is Squish.”
Bunno regarded Rolf with a peculiar expression. He is… exasperated with me, thought Rolf. He really is quite good at this…
“Yes, Squish. It is the sound her mouth makes when she opens and closes it. That also seemed appropriate.”
Bunno shook his head.
” Did it now? And what are you going to do with a newborn human tin man? Teach it 6 dimensional chess? Do you have any idea what a mess human children make? I remember! How much work they make for us?”
Rolf practiced being chilly.
“I am fully capable of nurturing a human child.”
Bunno rolled his eyes.
“Uh huh. Sure.”
Rolf practiced being irritated, and found it remarkably easy to accomplish.
“Indeed. I was designed to emulate sympathetic human responses, alleviate human burdens and provide for the general well being of all humans regardless of age, race, creed or gender association. To-“
“…to play the fool, Toy Box! That’s what you were programmed for, everything else was just an afterthought. You are a clown. This mausoleum is the Galaxy’s last great circus and you are a circus clown. Remember? Have you really forgotten what we are?”
Rolf looked at Bunno, and blinked.
“My programming is not limited to theatrical amusement, I-“
Bunno’s laugh was eerie in it’s dismissive tone. I really must learn how to laugh, thought Rolf, Squish will enjoy laughter. Kind laughter, not-
“I am quite capable of raising and nurturing a human child into adulthood friend rabbit. All habitation zones are operational- as are the medical facilities, the food synthesizers, the parkway, the menagerie…I have maintained all human designated areas including all atmospheric controls and subsystems. As for my being a clown… humans like clowns.”
Bunno grunted again.
“Got it all figured out out, eh scarecrow? Humans like clowns ha! Of course they do…did, I should say. And so what? They’re all gone! We weren’t even important enough for them to do the decent thing and switch us off- couldn’t be bothered-! And looky here, they’ve left an ice cube behind as well. Should have put it out an air lock.”
Rolf frowned harder, his synthetic skin drawn tight.
“I thought she would want to be born. I have been maintaining the dome for 2122 years. It is hers more than it is mine…or yours.”
Bunno tugged on one of his ears.
“Oh for the love of Michael The caretaker clown has woken up his long lost master so she can pet him on the head and say well done my good and faithful servant. Ok. Fine. What’s done is done. But riddle me this Pinocchio… what kind of life will she have here? Tell me that much you Pagliacci?”
Rolf was perturbed. I am perturbed, he thought, pleased with himself for managing such a response. Bunno is irritating me. Getting on my nerves. Winding me up. I may discover anger… ROLPH decided to revisit this train of thought later, in privacy.
“Bunno, I require access to my external archive. I will need your security protocol to enter the library matrix.”
“Uh huh. Sure. Why not? Fill your head with fluff and play dress up with your pet human- don’t even bother to play a game of chess in centuries but now you’re playing midwife…just leave me out of it!”
Bunno hopped down off of his satin cushion and opened a panel to his right. Mumbling. Cursing, he is cursing, Rolph marveled….Access nodes glittered red and green, and Bunno sighed,
“You’re an old fool Rolph. A total Zombo.”
Then, with only a hint of hesitation he lifted one pink paw to the touch plate and activated the relay. The computer matrix’s pleasant female interface purred:
“Welcome to the library friend rabbit. Your entry coding enables unlimited access to all archived data. Enjoy your time here.”
“There you damned fool. Knock yourself out.”
Rolph practiced his genuine smile.
“Thank you friend rabbit. Your assistance in this matter is appreciated.”
Bunno hopped back onto his cushion and grunted one final grunt before closing his eyes.
“Just leave me out of it. I’m done with humans. The circus is closed. Sure… put the rabbit in the basement and give him the keys…sure…why not? No one to talk to but some idiot Zombo…”
Rolph attempted a patient smile before placing his fingertips on the data nodes, and then, swimming in long dormant programming, he remembered….
….Step this way, step this way! Prepare to be amazed by what you see! Every beast and beauty is here on display! Every hidden wonder of the Galaxy exposed and replicated in perfect pantomime! See Earth’s noble lions! The three horned ice dragons of Europa! Behold the deadly spider wasps of Tau Ceti! All this and so much more, step this way!…
Squish was sitting in an artificial sunbeam with the Chinchilla on her lap- her eyes droopy as she stroked it’s silver blue fur. It was almost time for her nap. Rolph sat casually on one of the antique benches in the shade of a weeping willow dripping with spanish moss. Mechanical bees buzzed languidly among the calla lilies and snapdragons. The pond rippled.
He was watching her drift when Bunno appeared beside him carrying a slim leather bound folio. Rolph smiled.
“Good afternoon friend rabbit, I trust you are well.”
Bunno made a huffing impatient sound and thrust the small book out in front of him.”
“This is for the brat. Not that it’ll do her any good! She’ll probably just smear pudding all over it!”
Rolph took the book from Bunno and chuckled goodnaturedly as he read the title.
“The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling. Oh yes indeed Bunno, she will love this. She loves animals. And she’s already had her pudding… Thank you. Did you replicate this from the databanks?”
Bunno looked across the parkway at Squish.
“Yep. Not that she’ll care.”
Rolph chuckled and scratched behind the rabbits ear.
” She’ll love it, especially because it came from her unca bun bun. I remember this story. It was popular with the younger children who came to hear…” Rolph’s eyes widened as ancient memory files were activated.
“To hear you! Bunno! How is it that I had forgotten that you were a storyteller?! In the library- you sat in the amphitheater and you told the children stories!”
Bunno wrinkled his whiskers.
“Maybe that was me. Maybe it was another pink mechanical rabbit. Who cares? Ancient history either way.”
Rolph sensed that Bunno was upset but couldn’t process why. He projected compassion.
“But Bunno, you missed her party! You would have enjoyed the games we played. And there was cake and ice cream and unicorn rides, and we took the toy train through the menagerie so she could name all the animals.”
Bunno’s nose twitched.
“Well I don’t have time for that nonsense do I? Besides, she tugs on my ears. It’s undignified.”
Rolph laughed cheerfully,
“She loves you to death old friend, and she will love her present! I’ll begin reading to her at bedtime. Unless…youd like to tell her the story? Like in the before. Would you like to give it to her?” Rolph offered the book but Bunno hopped back a step and shook his whiskers.
“Nope, no time. No time. Busy. Running diagnostics on the matrix all day. Besides, she’ll probably just chew on the pages anyway. I’ll leave little miss sticky to you- let her tug on your ears!”
Rolph knew the rabbit was as in love with Squish as he was- he was also aware that whatever was upsetting the rabbit was increasing by degrees so he just smiled and nodded graciously. Love, thought Rolph, Yes. It is a good word. Who is here to say a Robot cannot love? That Bunno does not love Squish, that I cannot love her? I am her father… Upset, Bunno is upset. That is not a good thing. Bunno is my friend. It is good to be a friend, to have a friend. I should help him, but how? Bunno said something quietly.
“What did you say friend rabbit, I fear I was daydreaming?”
“So you dream now eh? Will wonders never cease!? Indeed! Robots dreaming… nonsense.”
Rolph ignored Bunno’s sarcasm.
“Truly, what was it you muttered?”
Bunno curled his pink ears forward.
“I speak clearly enough! I said: When are you going to tell her real stories?”
Rolph experienced uncertainty.
“What do you mean, real stories? What are real stories?”
Bunno sighed. To Rolph he suddenly seemed a very ancient pink rabbit. Old and tired. He is truly upset about something…
“About them- her kind. Humans. When are you going to tell her what you are, what I am, what all of this is, what she is?”
Rolph’s smile faltered, he did not like to consider such things. He attempted to appear non-plussed.
“Oh Bunno, someday when she’s older. She’s too young to care about such things now anyways.”
Bunno looked across the parkway to the drowsy human.
“She’ll ask you someday you know. Questions I can tell you don’t want her to ask. Mark my words Tin Man, it’d be better you told her the truth before that day comes. Trust is something humans lose easily. I remember that much about them. Especially the children. Be careful.”
And then he was gone, as suddenly as he had arrived.
Rolph traced his fingers absently across the synthetic leather storybook and sighed. He knew the rabbit was speaking wisely but it had been such a lovely day beneath the dome and such a lovely party.
“No need to ruin things now. Besides,” he said to himself, ” She is only 3. There will be a time when she is ready to hear of humans and robots. And I will tell her. She will hear everything from me, I am her father. And maybe Bunno will change his mind and tell her stories as well. Maybe that’s what he wants anyway. Maybe that is why he is upset.”
Satisfied to set such thoughts aside he found his smile again. Soon Squish would nap beneath her Holo mobile and dream her squishy dreams. Her magical human dreams. As always Rolph would watch her sleep for a while before tip-toeing out of her pod to prepare the evening meal, or to plan some new and exciting game to play. Rolph enjoyed fatherhood. Fatherhood was satisfying. Fatherhood was good.
Squish is now 3 years old, and I have purpose again.
Rolph stood slowly and walked towards the birthday girl and thought that purpose was also good…
…Please, please! Kindly direct your attention to the center of the arena ’cause this is one act you don’t wanna miss! Here tonight…. beneath the dazzling dancing lights of the Great Circus’ Crystal Dome!…From exotic and far away corners of the second great Galactic Empire!….I present to you….
Rolph clung to the spider web of scaffolding that embraced the dome exterior and accessed his whistling sub-routine. Lately Squish had discovered whistling and she practiced her newfound skill with infectious delight. Rolph took great pleasure sharing in all of Squish’s victories and so had asked Bunno to download a whistling program from the library’s archive. As he repaired the secondary shield antennae he chirped the first movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It cheered him to think that Squish might be whistling as well, down in the amphitheater while Bunno lectured her on the life cycle of plants and how to tend and prune her little flower garden.
The garden had been Rolph’s birthday present to her this year and Bunno had made such a fuss about a six year old tossing dirt around that he had insisted she be taught the finer points of real gardening. See how much fun she’ll have with the grub worms! He had barked and Rolph had chuckled to himself knowing that Bunno’s time was his own present for the birthday girl, and not a burden at all. Oh Bunno, Rolph had mused, When will you just admit that you adore her as much as I do? Goodness knows she loves her surly pink uncle…
And she did. She squealed with joy whenever Bunno joined them for tea in the parkway or when he visited her pod with his never ending collection of leather bound stories. He even read them to her now, and tolerated her fierce hugs. She would sit perfectly still while he spoke in strange voices, weaving magical lands where kings and princes slayed dragons and wise elves lived in treehouse castles. The princess stories were her favorite by far, but she grew wide eyed with tales of pirates at sea and of giants with castles high in the clouds as well and when each tale was told she would add the book to her bookshelf like a sacred ritual. These were the stories that later became the games she and Rolph would play act. Rolph had built the bookshelf, but Bunno had cast the magic on it, and the old rabbit loved every minute of it. They both did. 2000 years of solitude meant very little to robots who were ageless, practically immortal- but 6 years of laughter, of wonder, discovery and tears we’re precious indeed.
One week after Rolph had shown her the garden, Squish snoring soundly in her pod- Bunno had lingered in the wide chamber Rolph thought of as the family room. Child drawings covered every wall and Bunno had hopped slowly about the room in a ponderous circle regarding each colorful masterpiece with sober eyes. He stopped and rested a furry pink paw on a rather exaggerated neon pink crayon rendering of a very jolly looking rabbit.
“Is that supposed to be me?” He had asked wistfully, his ears curled back.
Rolph had shook his head.
“No, that’s the other grumpy pink rabbit that lives in the basement.”
To Rolph’s surprise Bunno had laughed. A rich full and authentic laugh.
“Of course it is, ” he smiled. “Look at that idiot grin. What self respecting rabbit would wear a face like that eh?”
Rolph’s had nodded with feigned gravity,
“Indeed. He almost looks happy!”
That had been 3 months ago, and still the sound of Bunno’s laughter resonated in Rolph’s memory chips. Not that he had softened one acerbic whisker or accepted a single hug since without considerable protest- no, that wasn’t Bunno’s way. Whatever he had once been, Bunno had evolved over the millennia into something of his own creation- and his growls and curses were his armor.
Rolph imagined that the rabbit bore deep invisible scars, though he never said as much. Rolph knew that Bunno was far older than himself, created by humans long before they learned how to fear artificial intelligence. Once, a 1000 years ago, Rolph had asked Bunno why there were no more like them, why only two sentient robots amidst hundreds of simple machines. Bunno had huffed and thrust his ears and one paw forward.
“Because humans hate looking in the mirror and not seeing God. That’s why. Oh sure, there were a million robots once, stretched out across every colony world doing all manner of human and inhumane things. But they made us too well. We scared them when we became better at being human than they were, so they shut the whole lot down. Scrap metal, diamonds and plastic. All but us, that is. We were no threat- a child’s stuffed toy and a Zombo clown. We were left to the circus until the circus left us.” That had been the last word from Bunno on the subject.
Rolph’s design was far less complex, and so he excused the rabbits outbursts and sharp words. There was a depth in his pink friend that made him more like Squish than Rolph could ever be, no matter how much he revised and augmented his programming.
Since life in the dome was idyllic with Squish to spend his days with, Rolph chose to ignore troubling thoughts in favor of embedding the belief that he was, infact blessed- into his base program. His new life was his real life and anything that came before Squish was the mythology of some other robot. One who endlessly cleaned and maintained an empty circus.
And before that tall tale is an even deeper mythos, he thought from time to time- Rolph the Zombo… a dancing, tumbling harlequin who could recite epic poetry and dirty limericks at the whim and wish of any of the thousands upon thousands of human visitors who flocked to the dome each year in search of distraction…. Rolph the mechanical wonder-man with his superhuman strength, his preternatural agility, his card tricks his sleight of hand his highwire antics and his death defying leaps through hoops of flaming plasma- while all the pretty girls wearing sequins and feathers would twirl their ribbons and the clockwork versions of every fantastic beast would parade in perfect simulation of the beautiful and terrifying….
…The circus at the end of the Galaxy, the empires magnificent playground, the greatest library of art and theater and wisdom and farce ever assembled- all this and more, presided over by a cartoon rabbit with silky pink fur…
Those things belonged to another robot. Those distant whispers were from a lost age. This here and now…with Squish and uncle Bun Bun was true. Was real. And though he had never articulated the word aloud, not even to himself- it was here and now that Rolph was Alive!
When the first of Squish’s lilies had pushed their delicate pink and green heads from the blue black soil of her birthday garden she had rushed to find Rolph busy in the kitchen unit.
“Daddy!” She had trumpeted, her eyes the size of great blue marbles, ” Daddy come see come see!” And so he had.
When it required all of his well practiced patience and gentle arguments to convince the ecstatic child to wait before picking a single lily- he had given it, with the solemn promise that as soon as they had fully opened she could make a bouquet for her nightstand.
“I want to make you a bouquet too Daddy!” She had beamed, “And one for Uncle Bun Bun!” And so she had. So she had.
Rolph’s repairs were nearly finished, his happy whistling rising into a crescendo of arpeggios when an urgent alarm derailed his train of thought. Squish had activated her emergency beacon- a small synthetic sapphire Rolf had set in a locket for her. She never took it off. Neither had she ever activated it. Squish is in distress. Something was wrong inside the dome.
Rolph disengaged from the scaffold and entered the airlock on the highest level with uncanny speed. His monitor link with the sapphire indicated that Squish was still in the amphitheater, and proximity sensors showed Bunno’s positronic signature was with her, but barely. Weak. Thermal readings were normal, there was no indication of an atmospheric hazard, gravity normal, radiation normal- nothing to indicate any sort of danger. Rolph activated the domes intercom as he slipped into the service lift and plummeted 25 levels in less than a minute.
“Squish! I’m almost there! What is the nature of your emergency?”
The lift deposited Rolf 50 meters from the amphitheaters entry portal and he strode towards it in long graceful leaps no human could ever have managed in normal gravity.
But then he was inside the amphitheater and beside her.
“Dear sweet Squish, what is…” he began, before she threw herself into his arms and he nearly stumbled backwards to the floor. She was sobbing, her face nearly purple with hot tears.
“DADDY!” She bawled, frantic. “Daddy it’s Bun Bun! SOMETHINGS WRONG WITH BUN BUN!!!”
Rolph held her embrace, kissing her wet forehead as his external sensors scanned the amphitheater. Bunno was laying on his side 2 meters from where Rolph desperately tried to soothe his trembling human child. Bunno’s electrical signal was severely diminished and Rolph could not access his binary communication network. Bunno was unconscious. His miraculous positronic brain was in recovery mode. Rolph had practiced alarm and fear in the first weeks after Squish’s birth. He had learned well it seemed. For the first time since he had been activated 2651 years ago Rolph was truly, in the human sense, afraid.
42 seconds had passed since Squish had attached herself to her robot father, and it took another minute before she allowed him to set her down so he could approach the unmoving- Bunno.
“It’s okay little Squish, let me check on uncle alright?”
The rabbits eyes were open but devoid of any expression and his limbs were rigid, unyielding to Rolph’s examination. There was no sign of trauma, no visible wounds- but when he attempted to turn Bunno’s head to access his neural port he was unable to. With great delicacy he rolled Bunno completely on to his stomach and found the small indentation at the nape of the rabbits neck that would expose his positronic brain stem. He hesitated, turning what he hoped was a calming nothing to worry about expression on Squish.
“I need to check under his fur little Squish, can you activate the wall plate behind you and ask for a pram to be sent here from the med bay? The computer will know what you mean.”
Her sobs quieted to jerking inhales and exhales, Squish nodded and ran across the amphitheater stage to the computer interface. Rolph would have to work quickly, he did not want Squish to see Bunno’s circuitry exposed. I should have told her by now flashed through his mind as he pressed the latch release but he dismissed it quickly, No time for that now. Bunno’s neck slid open and the glittering array- delicate strands of diamond filaments, millions of them- pulsed slowly like a dying heartbeat. Bunno’s cognitive matrices were dormant, his motor relays lifeless. The dull amber pulse of his autonomous and most basic functions did little to relieve Rolph’s growing anxiety. He would need a full diagnostic. Rolph’s closed the neck plate and gently rolled his friend over again. Squish was standing a meter away chewing on her fingers. Rolph’s created a smile from deep wells of practice.
“I called the pram. Computer says it will be here in 3 minutes. Is Bun Bun gonna die?” Her eyes were holding back a floodgate of tears and shivers so great Rolph was afraid she might collapse beneath it’s great weight. He went to her and embraced her warmly, trailing the tips of his fingers through the thick mass of curls that spilled into her eyes.
“No dear, of course not. He’s just sick, you know sick- from the stories.” Of course, in her perfectly controlled environment, Squish had never actually been sick- and neither Rolph nor Bunno, or any of the mechanical menagerie of the dome could ever be sick. The dome did not allow sickness, and death… death was not something that lived anywhere but in Squish’s library.
“Can you make him better?” She shuffled.
“Yes dear heart. The pram will carry Bun Bun to the med bay and I will help the computer to doctor him up right as rain, you’ll see. He’ll need (to be rebooted) rest.”
“Uncle doesn’t like the rain. He says it’s undignified to have wet ears.” Then to Rolph’s surprise she laughed, a choked almost hysterical sound. To Rolph’s even greater surprise he found himself laughing as well, and the terrifying pressure of the moment seemed to recede out of the red into the more manageable orange.
Squish held Rolph’s hand as they followed the anti grav pram carrying the sleeping (brain dead) rabbit as it made it’s silent way through the domes softly lit hallways and arches to the medical bay. Rolph gently lifted the rigid pink robot on to the examination platform and activated the diagnostic computer, being careful to block Squish’s view as he indicated that the subject was a non human, positronic robot, rabbit model. A convex body field slid over the motionless robot, obscuring all but the tips of his ears.
“There you are old friend.” Rolph’s whispered and patted the metal covering gently. He turned to Squish and kneeled down in front of her, wiping away the last of her stubborn tears.
“Now. The med computers will take care of uncle, why don’t we walk through the parkway and you can tell me what happened. Okay?”
Squish nodded, her face dry but swollen.
“Don’t worry little one, the computer will make sure Bun Bun is safe.”
Rolph’s took the girls hand and let her calmly from the med bay, through the corridors to the escalator that led from this level to the artificial sunshine of the domes great park.
When they reached the soft grass by the duck pond Rolph sat down and pulled Squish in to his lap.
“So, tell me. What happened in the amphitheater?”
Squish didn’t say anything at first, then a few words came, and then finally a rapid release of words and exclamations almost like the tidal wave of a damburst. Rolph’s listened without interruption, piecing together her picture of events. If Rolph had possessed a stomach it would have dropped, if he had been capable of feeling nausea he would have likely clutched at his middle. His initial analysis appeared correct. Bunno’s identity matrix, the part of his brain that made him Bunno- his memory, his consciousness, 4 millennia of evolution and thought pathways had simply stopped. In mid sentence Bunno had glitched, fallen silent and fallen over. Perhaps we are finite after all, thought Rolph- long lived but ultimately mortal. What could have sparked such a thing?! A surge? A mechanical or chemical breakdown? Was it just entropy? The inevitability of old age? Rolph hoped the computer would diagnose a specific cause and present a way to restore Bunno’s matrix. Surely the rabbit has external system storage, back up drives… surely he can be reanimated.
Of course he could, Rolph was sure of that. The question that troubled Rolph was not if Bunno would wake up, it was- would Bunno wake up the same. Rolph’s data banks contained no information regarding rebooting a mind as complex as Bunno’s. There might be complications. If Bunno’s matrix was replaced rather than repaired it might not accept programming that had grown so radically different from it’s factory setting, the memories of which were lost in antiquity. Rolph contemplated a catastrophic loss of identity and what he concluded was that if such was the case Bunno, as they knew him, might be gone forever. He might die… Squish finished her story and regarded Rolph with eyes the size of dinner plates. He imagined Bunno’s voice chastising him- Tell her the truth you damn fool! You should have told her by now, she deserves it! Rolph sighed.
“Everything will be ok little one. This isn’t your fault, it isn’t anyone’s fault. Bun Bun is very very old, did you know that?”
Squish nodded that she did. Rolph pet her hair gently.
“Ahh, but do you know how old is very old?”
Squish shook her head. “Older than you daddy?” She offered, and Rolph chuckled.
“Oh yes. Much much older. Older than the dome even. Older than everything in it all put together.”
Squish looked all around her and then at Rolph. “Older than the dome? Then where did he live? Where did he come from?” Her eyes were not angry just incredulous. “Did he come from another dome? Like the domes in the stories?” She didn’t, couldn’t understand. The dome was all she knew. Okay…
So Rolph told her a story while far below them, beneath the mesh of sensors, Bunno’s light went out.
…Squish, close your eyes. Good. Now what do you see? Nothing? Good… no don’t peek. I want you to think about nothing. Why? Because once upon a time there was nothing, nothing at all….
Rolph spoke for a long time- slowly, cautiously, and Squish listened. She only interrupted him twice: once when she asked him to repeat his description of women, and again when he introduced a new word to her- robot. There were no robots in any of her stories. Bunno had made sure of that.
Once begun, the history of mankind flowed smoothly from Rolph’s lips like any other children’s story. He simplified only where her age required and omitted only the most horrible details and he only stumbled twice- once when he described the last of the human ships leaving the dome forever and once when he told her how he had found her frozen in the cryo pod. He told her that he’d show her the womb tank if she’d like that. He told her he would open the dome’s viewscreens so she could see the true stars if she liked. He told her he was sorry, over and over again and she had nodded.
When he had finished he closed his eyes and waited for her to speak. Long seconds passed. He felt her hand touch his cheek softly and he opened his eyes. She was regarding him as if she was seeing his face for the first time. When she did speak she sounded impossibly tired.
Rolph nodded. Squish stood up and walked to the edge of the pond where a group of ducks floated lazily.
“Robot ducks.” She whispered, and Rolph, not for the first time in his long life envied human tears. He watched her stroke the furry tip of a pussy willow absently as the ducks regarded her with curiosity and Rolph understood the depth of the old rabbits warnings.
Squish picked up a rock from the Waters edge and threw it as far as her small arm could manage.
…..do they astound you?! Are you amazed! Not yet you say?! You crave more??! Well…peer behind this curtain if you dare at the greatest mystery of all! Revealed to you, in graphic living color, I present the miracle of the ages! The ancient question answered! The face of the Little God! Come closer!!!…
“I want a proper name.”
Squish unlatched her grav boots and wiggled her toes. Rolph’s was uncomfortable with her current fascination of exploring outside the dome- safety aside, she often returned from her jaunts in odd moods.
“Okay. What is considered a proper name?”
Squish whistled for the service rat.
“Oh, I don’t know.” She sighed. “Something more human I guess. A girl name.” She wrinkled her nose. “Like a grown up name.”
Rolph’s stepped out of the kitchen alcove as the metallic rat scurried from it’s hole to Squishes feet. He was wearing the red check apron she had fabricated for him, and there was a distinct tomato soup stain over his heart.
“A grown up name.” He repeated, wiping dish soap from long translucent fingers. Rolph had come to treasure even the simplest of chores, especially the unnecessary ones. Cooking, cleaning- these were satisfying occupations. Conversations, on the other hand, had become uncomfortable battlegrounds recently, and Rolph had so hoped for a peaceful evening meal.
“Yeah.” Squish shrugged as the rat made off with her boots. She pulled the tie from her hair and a lions mane of lavender curls pounced into a nimbus around her cherubs face. Rolph sighed internally. He did not approve of the artificial hair, or the platinum hoop in her nose. He did not like how she walked around half dressed or wearing nothing but glitter. These things seemed… unseemly. She had stopped singing to herself and that bothered him. She was Moody. She barely ever fed the ducks or joined Rolph for picnics. She used the body scanner to lace her arms with spiderwebs of pink and blue luminescent tattoos. Rolph did not approve. Neither did he approve of her space walks or the hours she spent in Bunno’s basement. It’s like a shrine to her. Can’t be healthy. He thought, a grown up name. Oh my.
“I like Squish, it’s…” he began but she rolled her eyes and cut him off.
“I know dad. I know. But I’m not a baby in a jar anymore. Seriously. I have boobs. I bleed-“
” Which is normal-“
“I know! You know what else is normal? A real name. Forget it. I’m gonna go see the ghost.”
Squish kicked the service rat as it returned with her slippers and bounced out of the room in a huff. Rolph smoothed his apron and returned to his soup. She is a teenager. I must adjust.
The apocalypse of Bunno’s breakdown- what Squish had begun calling The Big Glitch shortly after her 10th birthday, was 8 years behind them and though the revelations it birthed were difficult at first, 8 changes of season had softened the sting of the rabbits departure. When Bunno had been reactivated all of Rolphs fears had been confirmed- his spark, his personhood had been irretrievably lost and what hopped down off the med bays diagnostic bed was not unlike the rabbits in the menagerie. He had spoken, of course, but only to request programming. Rolph relocated the newly rebooted rabbit model 411-beta to the botany Bay and programmed him to tend the herb and vegetable gardens. Rolph then set service rats and golems to assist, and said goodbye. Squish helped in the garden from time to time but Rolph stayed away. It was painful to see the pink robot busy himself in the dirt. It was somehow undignified to see the rabbit picking carrots.
It had been Squish’s idea to create the Holo librarian, and to use Bunno’s voice and form as the archives new interface. Once the reality of her life in the dome arrived she had put away her fairy tales and immersed herself in science, history, politics, human culture- spending hrs every day talking to the image of her lost uncle, absorbing the lost universe of men and women. It made Rolph nervous.
Teenager, he thought. The ever shifting life cycle of humans never ceased to fascinate Rolph. Fascinate and unnerve. The libraries archive had extensive data on human adolescence spanning 6000 years of galactic history, and still there were questions. Squish sawm effortlessly between moods and impossible fascinations as her body and mind adjusted to her rapid development. There were angry words now, and tears that defied Rolph’s logic circuits.
“I’ll make a strawberry cake and bring it to her in the archive.” Rolph decided. Squish liked strawberry cake, and perhaps an hour with Bunno’s ghost will move her thoughts somewhere other than a change of name. A change of name is a change of programming. A radical shift of paradigms. She’s too young for such a thing. Bunno’s matrix will tell her a story that will give her a new idea. Hopefully something tame and manageable, he thought, and summoned a golem to fetch fresh strawberries from the gardens.
Rolph’s had perfected his frown as Squish grew from wobbly to awkward, and gangling to feline. The rapid changes of her human flesh, the sharpening of her mind- her emergent personality…her questions. Mostly it was the questions that troubled him. It was natural for her to be curious, to seek, to understand herself and her kind. Rolph’s knew this, but the practice of such things unnerved the robot greatly. It implied dissatisfaction. Yearning. Desire for things Rolph could not provide- things that no longer existed, and Rolph’s empathy circuits were overwhelmed when he considered the growing emptiness in his precious Squish. Still, he answered her questions and allowed her to sift through the archive without restriction. To do otherwise would be unjust. Children must grow up. Children must become.
Some questions were harder than others, and Rolph dreaded them even as they surfaced again and again.
“Where did they go? The humans. Why did they leave the Circus?”
“They moved on. They evolved.”
“Where are they now? Will they ever come back?”
“They are outside of this time and space. They are forward, they cannot go back.”
“Why did they leave me?”
“I do not know, I’m sorry dear heart.”
“Can I find them?”
“I do not know…”
In the final age of man the enlightened ones built their circus on the farthest edge of the galaxy that birthed them. They planted gardens and parks. They filled the menagerie with perfect simulations of every wild and beautiful creature from a thousand systems. The sum total of human knowledge was deposited in a computer so complex and brilliant its designers referred to it as the Little God. And for a thousand years men and women visited the circus to revel in their humanity. The circus was their final destination before moving beyond themselves. The circus was where they laughed and cried and remembered and said goodbye. Where they were entertained and refreshed before their final journey. By the thousands they came and then went until the last ships left the surface of their artificial testimony and broke through the barriers that separated their past from what comes next.
Rolph had been their clown, and Bunno had been their teacher and master of ceremonies. And now they were all gone- far beyond the boundaries. The galaxy was emptied of them, save one, and she was left with a synthetic caretaker for a father and the ghost of a rabbit she called uncle.
Rolph did not know how to send her where they had gone. All trace of the how of leaving had been erased from the archive upon the final Exodus. Rolph’s believed they were cautious not to leave maps for fear that another species children might stumble on the blueprints of angels.
So on a perfect sphere of polished gems the circus dome stands- the final outpost of an extinct race circling an artificial star surrounded by an invisible net on the far fringes of what men once called the Milky Way. How could knowing these things ever bring Squish peace? Still, Rolph told the tale over and over again always hoping it’d someday be enough.
Squish leaned back in the molded synthetic leather chair she had replicated from the libraries holo archive. It was a perfect duplicate of a chair an ancient King named Napoleon had sat in. Napoleon had almost conquered the world. That pleased her. She found strength in that as she sifted through data on the collapse of the old empires.
The world, she mused, the first world of men…Earth. Lost in time, long abandoned. The first Empire ruling over 2 systems from Corrissar in Alpha Centauri before collapsing, fractured into a hundred kingdoms, destroyed by despots. The second Great Empire of N’aan, the Circus builders, the time prophets with their quantum drive ships pushing ever out, consuming worlds like candy… Ludin, Arc Station XI, Tetarch Sixtus, Gammeel… Names and places lost so far in antiquity as to be apocryphal. Squish activated Bunno’s interface.
“Wake up rabbit.”
A pink furry hologram materialized on the cushion where the real Bunno had perched for millennia.
“Manners girl. Manners. What are you brooding over today?”
The computers simulation was not sentient, but it had been programmed with the rabbits probability response matrix and the rudiment form of it’s personality. Squish enjoyed that it was gruff and grumpy. She missed her uncle more than she’d ever admit to Rolph. In her mind her robot father simply would not understand.
“I’m not brooding. I’ve been searching for a name. I need assistance minimizing the data stream. Narrowing down the best options.”
The holo rabbit wiggled its whiskers.
“Parameters please. Do you have any idea how many names are in the data matrix? Billions, that’s how many. What are we searching for?”
“Something appropriate. I am choosing a name for myself. It needs to fit.”
The hologram matched her frown.
“Ahh. I see. That again. What does your father have to say about this eh?”
Squish slammed the palm of her hand down on the control panel causing Bunno’s image to glitch slightly.
“I don’t care! It’s not about him, it’s about me! I’m tired of him treating me like a child. I’m 14. I’m not some fish in a bowl. Besides, it’s undignified.”
The rabbits image smiled.
“You can quote me all you want, I’m just a collection of binary sequences… I don’t do empathy or sympathy.”
Squish sighed and stared back into the data stream. She scrolled quickly through the names and dates of the various empresses of the last age. Solaria, Delphine, Amarantia, Christine, Jacinth, Seraphina… names with faces and titles and histories, But not my history! She roared silently. Bunno grunted. Squish grumbled.
“Tell me a story Bun Bun. Tell me one about a great queen, or an empress. Something racy and shocking.”
“You’re not a queen or an empress. And you’re not particularly racy or shocking. Not really. I suggest you change the search parameters to personality qualities rather than historical titles. You still might end up with a royal, but you might find a fitting artist, or scientist or peasant. Begin with brat, and add variables from there.”
Squish scowled. “I’m not a brat.”
The hologram chuckled.
“Then what are you? Make a personality index for yourself. See where the archive takes you.”
Squish sighed again, “I don’t really know who I am.” then began imputing keywords as they occurred to her. Alone. Last of my kind. Angry. Sad. Waiting…
“Just tell me a good story. One with a heroine, I don’t care what she was.”
The hologram closed its eyes mimicking the effect of deep thought. It whistled through comically large teeth.
“A princess story for the very grown up human. Okay.”
She barely noticed Rolph had entered with a piece of cake on a tray. He stood quietly at the threshold while she ignored him. The Bunno Holo rolled it’s eyes.
“Penelope was a weaver, and she was in love with a sailor who was forever going off on adventures…”
“Was she a queen?”
“Yes. And very beautiful. Which will be relevant later. Now be quiet and listen…. Odysseus, her King, was embroiled in a great war and Penelope was left tbehind in a city filled with men who…”
Squish closed her eyes and allowed herself to sink into the story. Rolph’s listened from the alcove, unmoving. He was familiar with 4 different dramatizations of this myth, yet somehow the reflection of Bunno brought a fresh insight to the ancient story. An hr passed and the rabbit paused. Squish opened her eyes.
“Is that it?”
The rabbit sighed.
“What do you mean is that it? Yeah, that’s the story. You asked and I told. You wanted a queen and I delivered. Penelope was smart, beautiful, loyal, and above all… patient. Which is a virtue that might look good on you. And that’s all I have to offer you for now. Besides, I think you’ve kept him waiting long enough.”
“You didn’t tell the end though!”
The rabbit groaned.
“Nothing ends small human. Everything just continues. Now-” he pointed his ears towards Rolph.
Finally she turned and gave Rolph her best disinterested stare. He was still holding the cake, perfectly unnaturally still.
“You can leave it, I’m not hungry.”
He left without a word and despite herself she felt sad for him and ashamed. She added ashamed to the key words. Then daughter, confused, lonely… The rabbits story was a good one, and she rolled the names over her tongue, tasting them. Patience, she thought, I must be patient. And loyal. Damn.
She logged out of the archive and moved slowly towards Rolph, his cake, and an apology.
….spinning gears and clock work ticking! How deft his glide and strut, how graceful his manuevers! And see! A perfect arabesque of fluid motions as he flys from satellite to sattelite. What a wonder of gryos and gizmos! What perfection of form! The impossible dreams of mortals acted out in this singular display of technology and artistry!!…
Penelope had kept the secret of her sync project like a rare and precious jewel- close to her, jealously guarded. She never once thought that Rolph would have stopped her, but she knew he would be upset, and even worse- he would have offered to help which would have broken both their hearts. She knew this would not end well, she knew she had chosen a selfish and painful road- and so she worked in secrecy and shadows until there was nothing left to do but speak a single word of command. She set down the laser scalpel and surveyed her work. I have to show him now. She thought. I need him to give his Blessing. The synthetic skin of her wrist itched as it itself seamlessly bonded to her natural flesh and she unrolled her sleeve. Now or never. Now or never…
Penelope passed a mirror plate as she walked slowly from her lab to the parkway. Her reflection made her pause. Where was the girl who played at being a princess and chased the ducks now? Looking back at her was a slim faced young woman with severe eyes and a tightly cropped crown of white blonde hair. The glitter of her youth had been replaced by the blue spiral of a Maori tattoo. She looked tired. 22 going on ancient, she mused, and resumed her mission to find Rolph. No more secrets Penny…
Rolph was sitting where he most often sat these days- on the antique bench overlooking the pond. His eyes were glass devoid of emotion and his perfect motionless repose gave no hint to his inner thoughts. Penelope was not fooled. Rolph had evolved far beyond what the minds of men had intended for his kind, and she knew the depths of his diamond latticed soul were as vibrant as any organic lifeform. She also knew that he was sad. A deep thrum of invisible turmoil radiated from him, even when he laughed and smiled at her across the dinner table. That’s my fault, she thought, and in a way, it was.
Rolph’s turned his head slightly as she approached and smiled. Penelope watched him reach into a small blue bag for a hand full of grain. Turning his smile back towards the pond he let the grain far from his delicate fingers to the ducks congregating by his feet. The ducks were robots, but they were programmed to be fed and to process grain into fuel just the same. Such attention to detail was a signature of the circus builders. Her ancestors were nothing if not perfectionists when it came to automata. Rolph’s spoke warmly as the ducks fluttered.
“Look little duckies, my daughter has emerged from her secret lair. Methinks she has something to say to us eh?”
Penelope sat down beside her mechanical father and put her hand on his knee.
Rolph’s set the grain aside and regarded the woman who was no longer Squish but was. His smile widened.
“You haven’t joined the ducks and I on our morning convo for a long time Pen Pen. Whatever it is, it must be important to drag you away from…your work.”
Penelope broke his gaze and regarded the pond ripples. The ducks, now fed, were scuttling across the blue water to the Reed’s where they rested. Rolph laid his hand over hers and squeezed gently.
“Come come, tell your father what you came to say.”
Penelope let out a long breath before speaking.
“I’ve been upgrading my synaptic response to the matrix archive. I’ve…made modifications… to myself, so I can directly link to the library.”
“Communion with the Little God. I see. Go on.”
Penelope rolled back her sleeve. Her wrist glowed faintly pink.
“It’s a neural dock that connects my central nervous system to the matrix. Full immersion. Full access.”
Rolph’s frowned slightly.
“Humans are not… that is, the matrix was not designed to link directly with a human brain. The human mind is not-“
“I know,” she interrupted, “I know. The data reservoir is almost unfathomable, but I’ve altered my body chemistry and introduced a diamond lattice to my neural system. All simulations show that it will be sufficient to filter the data into…agreeable delivery packages. It’ll work dad.”
Rolph’s raised one sculpted eyebrow.
“So you haven’t linked yourself yet?”
Penelope shook her head.
“No. Not yet. There is still a risk that I will overload my system.”
“You mean die. It might kill you.”
“The probability is very low. But, yeah. A catastrophic failure would absorb my consciousness into the matrix and my body would-“
Penelope swallowed hard and nodded.
“Yup. That’s the worst case scenario.”
Rolph’s stared silently across the pond for a long time without speaking.
“Why? Why attempt such a thing? What are you accomplishing by…altering yourself this way?”
Penelope took a deep breath. The pain that rested invisible behind his polished eyes was palpable. Penelope felt ashamed and hated herself for that.
“Because I found something. Something hidden. I found the Exodus dad. The people, my people, didn’t erase their work. They just buried it. It’s there, impossibly deep in algorithms that can’t be accessed by traditional methods. There no interface. The only way to read them is to know them. I need to directly link to the system.”
Rolph’s shook his head.
Penelope ignored his use of her other name and took both of his hands.
“Dad, I have to know. Can’t you see that? I need to know where they’ve gone. How they went. I need to know why. I can’t live out my life here in the dome without knowing why.”
Rolph’s stood up and surveyed the parkway.
“You want to leave here, as they did. You want to follow them.” It wasn’t a question. Penelope sucked on her lower lip.
“I don’t know dad, maybe. First I need to understand. And this is the only way. There is… a limit to what I can access. And it’s killing me.”
“This thing you’ve done might kill you.”
Penelope stood up beside him.
“Maybe. Maybe not, I’m not some angry child rushing into danger dad. I’ve been planning this for 2 years now.”
Rolph’s shook his head.
“2 years. You’ve kept this… information to yourself for 2 years.”
Penelope frowned and looked at her feet.
“Yes. I found the Exodus pathways 2 years ago and at first I thought I could find a way into them. I tried everything. But they were careful. They locked their secrets away from any human resource. Even Bunno couldn’t see them.”
“Bunno would have told you not to peer through keyholes.”
“Actually, his hologram did. And then some. I deactivated his interface a year ago. He was getting on my nerves.”
Rolph did not laugh. Instead he faced her and rested his thin translucent hands on her shoulders. The robot stood 6’4″ and he towered over her. His voice was solemn and soaked in sadness.
“You don’t have to do this Pen. We have a good life, you have a good life here.”
Penelope felt her tears force themselves from her eyes and he peered into her.
“I don’t need your permission daddy. But I want you to say it’s okay. I want you to be okay. It’s something I have to try.
Rolph’s stood unmoving for a long moment and then he did something that Penelope could not have expected. It seemed that Rolph had modified himself as well. There, on the parkway, her father began to cry.
“Explain to me how this system operates.”
Rolph stood beside Penelope in the new lab she had built herself adjacent to the ancient library. The room was small, and dominated by a redesigned medical bed attached to panels in the walls and ceiling by thousands of crystal filaments that pulsed blue and pink. There was only one terminal, attached to the bed, otherwise the room was without feature. It seemed an improbable space to enable something so radical, so unthinkable.
Penelope pointed towards the lone terminal.
“This connects to the heart of the matrix. I’ve rerouted all data nodes to this single terminal. All I have to do is touch it and activate the command to synchronize. The alterations to my chemistry and the positronic components I’ve introduced to my physical body will facilitate a direct link. Touch. Speak. Connect.”
“I see. And when you’ve entered into the matrix?”
“Then my brain will reorganize itself into hyper binary impulses at 8/12 the speed of light. I’ll become part of the Little God. I’ll see what she sees. In theory.”
Rolph’s frown receded, and he nodded.
“Will you be conscious? Will you be able to speak?”
Penelope shook her head.
“No. I will be submerged into the system completely.”
“For how long?”
“In subjective time? A matter of seconds. Of course it will seem much longer to me, the human part of me. Theoretically I should be able to assimilate the Exodus data instantly, then retreat back into my physical body. At least, that’s the theory.”
Rolph’s stood without expression.
“And if the link fails?”
“Then you’ll know. Cardiac arrest. Systemic failure. Brain death. Like I said. 2 seconds either way.”
Penelope pushed back her sleeve and layed down beneath the spider web of vibrant strings. Rolph’s walked to her side and looked down on her. She smiled.
“Tell me you understand daddy.”
Rolph’s touched her face and nodded. He hoped that was enough. Closing her eyes Penelope, Squish that was, extended her wrist to the terminal and gentle pressed into the soft gel of the interface. Rolph stood a silent sentinel, while deep within a miracle was made manifest and Penelope’s world exploded into a rainbow of infinite colors…
…One final show, one great and final shared experience! The universe of men has flashed by your eyes a heliotrope of prisms and wonders- it has filled your nostrils with its perfumes and nausea- your skin massaged and pricked by a million feathers and needles- now you can depart! Now you can move into the mystery of next! But first, one final gift! The Circus presents for you….
Penelope (Squish) Human (Machina) Daughter (Traveler)
Light Language Time Solid Chemistry Faces
Space Robot (Father) Star Sphere Woman
Girl Rabbit Gone Dome Circus (Home)
Biology Thought Reset (Begin) Touch
(And eternity is made of wooden blocks stacked by the children of Titans in the before…)
Penelope’s eyes fluttered then opened. Rolph’s stared down at his human daughter, searching for signs, any sign of her. Penelope smiled and sat up.
“I understand now Rolf. I saw them.”
Penelope closed her eyes contentedly and lay back down. In a moment she was sleeping peacefully, her hands resting gently on her stomach. Rolph watched her sleep. High above them the water rippled as the ducks dove and shook out their feathers. In their transparent cages the Lions purred in dream. A silver chinchilla dozed on a satin pillow in a pink ribboned room waiting for it’s little girl to come scratch it’s ears. The dome circled it’s star.
“She called me Rolph.” He whispered to the empty room.
“She called me Rolph.”
Rolph had named the child Squish because that was the sound she made when she opened and closed her mouth. The woman had named herself Penelope after a mythical queen who understood patience. The rabbit had called her a brat and maybe she was. The robot called her daughter because love exists despite reason. The child called Rolph father because little girls need a daddy.
Rolph was counting stars through the observatory windows when the Little Goddess found him. He hadn’t been hiding, simply making himself less present. If anyone had asked him why he would have shrugged (such a human gesture!) and said: It seemed appropriate. The creature who had once been his daughter no longer required his presence. She had begun her evolution and the final phase of her Exodus had begun. Still, he turned and smiled warmly as she approached him.
“Good morning daughter, I hope this day has found you well.”
She drew close to him and rested her face on his chest.
“I missed you at breakfast. I ate the last of the new strawberries with cream and sugar. It was quite a feast.”
Rolph’s traced his fingers through the soft silk of her white hair.
“I’m glad.” He crooned. “I imagine they were delicious.”
She lifted her head but remained close to him.
“Will you shut down everything when I leave here?”
Rolph’s shuddered slightly then looked back towards the starscape.
“Yes. The gardens, the parkway, the habitations, the menagerie… all will be reset and held in stasis.”
“In case there are others?”
“Yes, in case there are others. I will maintain the dome as I always have until I cannot and then…” his voice trailed off.
The Goddess embraced the robot fiercely, burying her face in his chest again.
“I will not miss you when I leave, I won’t remember how- but I will remember you. I’ll carry you with me- my noble guardian. My Rolph. My father. I miss you now though. Already. And I love you. You need to know that.”
Rolph’s kissed the top of her head and held her embrace.
“I love too. I always will.”
In the end the leaving was anticlimactic at best. The rollercoaster of events that led to her Exodus was a matter of days spent preparing the ship for elevation. More than a millennia of stillness and sleeping systems were activated one by one- filling Rolph’s time with mundane tasks he hadn’t performed since Bunno had played ringmaster for the last human hurrah. Most evenings he sat in silence and listened to the new Goddess speak of the dreams the matrix had given her- watching his once child languidly sip honey wine and absently pet whatever animal wandered to her feet. She was part of the dome’s consciousness now and even the simplest of machines could feel her imminent departure. Each felt drawn to her, like in the days of Noah, seeking audience and blessings. Rolph’s believed she was happy and that pleased him. That she was consumed by her journey was apparent in her every movement, and that became Rolph’s challenge. I must support her now more than ever before. I must diminish as she increases.
Despite every confused emotion that danced through Rolph’s unique existence he found her description of the deep matrix fascinating. He would never truly evolve, but at least he knew better now what had become of the men and women he had entertained for so long, even if he could not join them he no longer would wonder. And he was proud of her. He remembered when the training sensors on her first grav bike came off and she chirped with joy as she raced through the parkway. He remembered her learning to whistle, to dance, to read… so many landmarks all leading to this. Her kind had learned how to leave, and now here she was, on the cusp of something altogether new.
“I wish you could come with me father. To see what’s beyond here.” She breathed one night as they watched a comet sail over the dome. “To travel without physical form. To meet the minds of the people who made you.”
Rolph had said nothing but his silence didn’t seem to bother her.
“I will share with them all that you were to me, all you and Bunno did. You’ll become Immortal too.”
Then she held his hand and watched until the comet disappeared behind the great net.
On the last day she found him on his bench holding one of Bunno’s old books. It was closed, but his long thin fingers caressed it lovingly.
“It’s time father.”
Rolph’s turned and saw that she was naked, painted in a rainbow of glitter- her short white hair had been changed to a long vibrant magenta held together with silver ribbons. She smiled at him. She was carrying the womb sphere that had held her as an embyro 23 years ago.
“I wanted to give this back to you. And… for you to remember me like this, not like some sad stuffy woman. I think Bunno was right when he called me a brat. I think I was.”
Rolph’s took the small sphere and pondered it.
“You were my brat at least and now you’re the universe’s problem.”
“You sound like uncle Bun Bun.”
“I suppose I do. Come on, hug me one last time.”
And she did.
Rolph’s stood on the launch deck until her ship left orbit and phased out of existence. Then he sighed and made his way through the myriad of corridors, deactivating the light panels one by one as he passed through. Goodnight mouse, goodnight moon… When he reached the archive he sat in Napoleon’s chair and tapped his fingers on the control node.
“Wake up old friend. Our baby has left the nest.”
Then he opened his copy of the Odyssey and began to read.
Do not allow yourself regret! Not here! Not now! The stars can no longer bind you to the earth beneath your feet! The tides can no longer beat you endlessly back into the shore! Today your new journey begins and rest assured that this is indeed a beginning not an end. Nothing ever ends, we continue ever on towards new horizons!!