Author: Mark Thomas
The boy and his robot companion walked along the ruined wall to a school complex, as they did every morning.
“Here it is,” the companion said. He pointed to a spot where the stonework changed subtly.
“I still don’t see it.” The boy looked closer. “I mean, the blocks are a little more uniform, and they’re more neatly stacked, but they’re still just stacked.”
“Look at the edge of this particular stone, where it’s been broken. See?”
For several days, the robot companion had been trying to point out the architectural evolution of this rubble wall, at a point in the moon’s ancient history where original inhabitants had improved their building techniques.
“Ooooooh,” the boy said, suddenly understanding. “There’s a hollow in the top brick and a little bump in the lower one. That’s what you’ve been getting at. You’re very clever.” He brushed his finger along the fracture in the stone, feeling tool abrasions that were thousands of years old.
“Careful!” The companion suddenly grabbed the boy’s wrist and pulled it back sharply.
“What is it?” The boy wasn’t particularly concerned. This moon had absolutely no large fauna, so he hadn’t developed a healthy dread of his environment, like inhabitants of other colonies. This moon’s indigenous population was merely a collection of worms and beetles. All of those creatures were capable of defensive stings and bites but young minds had difficulty connecting the mild initial wounds with ensuing infection.
The colonists had been forced to replace visceral fear with patient instruction.
The robot companion elongated his fingers and inserted them into the fissure and carefully probed around. After a moment he withdrew a flat, purple scarab and held it up for the boy to inspect.
“How did you know it was in there?”
The companion pointed to a faint discolouration in the rock. “There are traces of its spoor.”
The boy slapped the robot on its shoulder in a friendly fashion. “Well, you shouldn’t have let me stick my fingers in there, then.”
The robot’s face froze for an instant while it processed the complex information. It wasn’t easy to maneuver through the potential dangers of a new landscape, and preserve the fragile psyche of a developing child. “Point taken. I apologize.”
The boy didn’t want any friction to develop in his relationship with the companion so he quickly refocused his attention on the specimen. “It’s the hairs on the back legs that sting?” he asked.
The boy recalled an earlier lesson. “And you really believe these little creatures ate the people who built the stone walls?”
“I don’t know if it’s proper to call the old inhabitants people at all.” The companion couldn’t help sounding pedantic. “There are absolutely no remains, so we can’t determine what they looked like.” The companion pointed upwards to a cloudless, blue morning sky where three of the planet’s nine moons were visible. “The environmental change was catastrophic, that’s all we know for sure. I personally attribute it to the eccentric orbits of the moons.”
“They wobble,” the boy said giggling, remembering a much earlier interchange.
The robot companion calculated the trajectories of the three satellites as they moved imperceptibly towards the horizon. “Yes,” he smiled.
“And…and…” the boy was laughing uncontrollably now as he mentally replayed one of their favourite conversations from the past, when the companion was more likely to tell outrageous stories than lecture him about alien biology. “It’s as if we all woke up one morning, and instead of tubers…” The boy couldn’t continue.
“I ate you for breakfast,” the companion added, sadly.