“Twelve horses in the field. Twelve horses,” said the robot, and waited for his son to answer. When none was forthcoming, he pointed, a spot of red appearing on the cheek of each horse. “One… two…” He counted to five and put a dot on a sixth horse, hoping his son would say, “Six.”
There was no response. He tried a different approach. No robot could allow an error to pass without correction.
“Eleven horses in the field. Eleven horses.”
His son stared mutely at the horses, only the subtle flash of light in his eyes evidencing his consciousness, or perhaps it was the midday sun.
“Eleven horses,” said the robot. “Eleven.”
His son’s head did not move. His mouth did not open. The robot put a hand to the back of his son’s neck, felt the thrum of energy.
“Eleven. There are eleven horses. Eleven. Is this correct? Eleven.”
His son said nothing.
The robot whirled, an arm snapping up, the palm of his hand sending a burst of laser at a shaggy brown horse. The horse’s skull exploded, sending the rest of the herd scattering in a screaming, pounding panic.
The horse’s body slumped to the grass.
“Eleven horses,” said the robot.
He took his son’s hand, gripping it tightly as he led him away.
The robot calculated. Perhaps the counting exercises were too easy.
“Our speed is currently four and a half miles per hour. We are walking west-southwest. If we continue this exact trajectory, where will be in twenty-nine and a quarter hours?”
His son said nothing. The robot repeated the question.
They came to a stop by a VW bus without tires or windows. The robot put his hand on his son’s heart, where the digi-compass, positioning system, and thermonuclear regulator were located.
“Where will we be?”
After a time, there was no answer, so the robot put his son on the porch steps of a nearby house, and he left them there while he began to dismantle the VW bus. As he worked, he thought perhaps his son’s silence in this issue was intelligent. For whatever had been at 29° 57' 17 N, 90° 4' 30 W surely no longer existed.
The robot worked all through the afternoon and into the night, and when he was finished, only Venus remained watching. His son’s eyes had dimmed, his body shut down as it was programmed to do each evening at ten. The robot climbed atop his creation, sitting in its fender arms and peering through modified headlamp glass at the yellow glow of the planet.
“If I continue walking at this pace for sixteen hours per day, how long until I reach you?” he whispered.
When Venus did not answer, he said, “Never. Never. Never.”
In the morning, when he woke, his son stood at the foot of his creation, staring down the long, cracked road. The robot climbed down, heated a fingertip until he could scratch his name on a hubcap, and then took his son’s hand and began walking.
Behind them, the object that was no longer a VW bus stared up at the sun and listened for Venus to appear.
There was a base inside a mountain, impenetrable to attack. There was an enormous telescope in Hawaii. There was a place to launch rockets here and here and here.
The robot had deleted each one from his list after examination. Hawaii had been a difficult journey, the most difficult of all, more arduous even than removing tons of rock. But in the end, all had proven to be as empty as his son’s circuitry, illusions of past brilliance. He sat on a low bridge and watched alligators coming together, drifting logs with some little purpose.
At his side, his son sat with legs hanging over, glinting in the sun above the dismissive gators. They had not reached the projected coordinates, but it no longer seemed to matter. There was nothing left on this planet that contained the necessary technology to send or receive intergalactic messages; he knew this now. His own capacity had been purposely diminished—cruelly, he thought—leaving him unable to do so himself.
Alone for a time, left to wander, he had almost shut himself down, put himself into permanent sleep mode, when he had come across the boy in a room underground in a facility long since abandoned.
“I am not alone,” he had said, but it was not true. He was still alone. The boy was ancient technology, discarded, defective, no better than the mammoth televisions he occasionally came across, and less useful. It had taken a month to get him to move, and no progress since then.
If only he could get his son to talk. If he could only communicate with it, re-open old directives and shunt the flow of energy into a direction he wanted: though an antique, there was the possibility that his son possessed the ability to send messages via the interplanetary radio system. When? Which generation had been given that ability?
And if not, then at least the robot would have someone to talk to.
“Alligator mississippiensis,” he said. “Repeat.”
Swamp waters lapped against the cement pillars beneath the bridge.
“Alligator mississippiensis. Alligator mississippiensis.” Nothing. He went on, lecturing on taxonomy, history, evolution. Feeding habits. Useage of skin, claws, and meat. Habitat.
And then he reached over and carefully began dissecting his son, until the first shy stars winked on the horizon.
The message went out daily.
Venus did not respond.
At first the message asked for help and transport, gave coordinates. Said that the robot was the last sentient being on the planet.
After two hundred and sixty-nine days, the message gave only coordinates.
At five hundred and four, the message transmuted yet again: Why. Why. Why.
The robot sat on the bridge with the head of his son in his arms and watched the sky while alligators and nutria and water moccasins swam below. In the dark, Venus appeared, yellow and small and brighter than the Dogstar.
On the nine thousandth, eight hundred and fifty-seven day, the robot put his son back together, but the old materials had no strength and fell to dust in his fingers.
When at last the robot left the bridge and waded into the murky waters and shut himself off, it was to a chorus of bullfrogs and the silent gaze of a hundred watchful alligators. And deep in the night, with no sentient beings left on the planet, a Jeep in Denver, a Mustang on a dirt road outside of Erie, and more and more vehicles that were no longer vehicles in places that were no longer cities, and finally a VW bus in downtown Montgomery, blinked to life as a message came: We don’t know.
We don’t know.