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Finding Miss Penelope

by Sam Bellotto Jr.

Rusted raised letters on the clanking gate declared that it was the robot entrance to the memorial park. The more lavish portal a block and one-half farther down was for Humans Only, but the worn 928-C model personal assistant robot didn’t mind. He had always felt it best to let the humans be humans.

The only human he ever cared for anyway was Miss Penelope Thorogood, whose robot he had been for over one hundred and twenty years, whose funeral has been held yesterday, whose memorial marker he now sought out.

* * *

Miss Penelope had bought him when she was just fourteen, with her own money earned from odd jobs but mostly from work as a part-time lab assistant.

Miss Penelope was a genius, they said, earning a doctorate in biochemistry and several other advanced degrees before she was old enough to vote. He had come straight from the robot factory, sparkling clean and smelling of synthetic oils. She’d named him Euclid, but it was the tenor of her voice that he always responded to, not any name.

Miss Penelope’s marker would be farther down, in the new section, where it would not be laid out with so many others like rows of piano keys. He shuffled along as best he could, the parts of his right leg barely holding together. The 928-C had been discontinued for several decades, but Miss Penelope refused to part with him.

She was one of the world’s leading endocrinologists. Her discoveries were almost solely responsible for the generous extension of life people now enjoyed. She was also practical, insisting that old age could be savored as much as youth and that there was, nonetheless, an unavoidable expiration date. She thought the same of her personal assistant robot and refused to replace him with a newer model.

The plastoid walkway took a sharp left past a grove of oligrant bushes and wump-wump chitterers hovering in the air on silicon wings. It was in a setting much like this one where Miss Penelope had first sought the robot as her confidant, her confessor. Miss Penelope was no prude; she was human. Her first love had ended.

“The sex was wonderful,” she sighed. “He could have my body, freely. But he wanted my soul.”

The robot held Miss Penelope’s hand, to comfort her. The robot understood. “You are far above his level. You are far above the level of most humans.”

“I hate them!”

“Don’t hate them,” the robot advised, “help them.”

After that, she had her share of boyfriends, significant others, but she never married. Devotion to one person would have demanded too great a sacrifice, broken the promise of devotion to everyone that she had pledged quietly that day to her robot. She never told anybody the story. It was their little secret. Besides, she had also told the robot many times it was nobody else’s business.

There, past the alabaster mausoleum, was the new section. The sky above bore a contrasting light-shift to the purple. How long had it been? Twenty years since he accompanied Miss Penelope across the floor and up to the dais to receive her World Freedom Lifetime Achievement Award. Only seven people in all of history had ever gotten it — Earth’s highest honor for contributions to the human race.

“What else could I possibly have done with my life?” she whispered to her robot before rising to thunderous applause.

Miss Penelope could have retired in luxury and adoration, traveled the world, written books, taken the lecture circuit by storm. Not for her. The work was all that mattered. Disease had not been entirely wiped out. People still suffered.

The work continued. Fittingly, at her desk, with modeled organic molecules swirling around on the screens of her many tablets like a mesmerizing modern dance, Miss Penelope quietly slumped over and was gone. He found her about an hour later.

* * *

And now he stood before her memorial marker. The embedded sensor, loaded with a variety of facial recognition and AI software, found him. The speaker responded with a recording.

“Euclid! Good of you to come. I knew you would, though. I trust all my sniveling friends, colleagues and relatives have gone home? I love them so, but they’ve never grasped the concept of this thing we call life. I didn’t mind not being alive for billions of years, why should I mind not being alive now? In between is what matters. My life is — was — gloriously fulfilling, thanks to you. We accomplished a helluva lot, didn’t we? Good of you to come, my old friend. Think of me once in a while, will you?”

He was only what they would call a primitive AI. But he silently agreed that the lifetime he’d spent with Miss Penelope was special, precious. He knelt next to her memorial marker. He propped himself against it so he would not fall over onto the artificial lawn. He reached up to his temporal access panel, opened it, and turned himself off.

Copyright © 2013 by Sam Bellotto Jr.

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