A Steam Powered Giraffe Fanfiction by Aoikami Sarah
The rain came down in soft waves and occasionally the wind would twist it and pelt the windows of the dining room. Around the eastern end of a table long enough to seat twenty sat Michael, Steve, The Spine, Hatchworth and Rabbit. A pair of crystal chandeliers didn’t do much to help light the room, which was filled with grey, diffuse light from the tall western-facing windows. The humans had finished their lunch and empty plates were pushed aside, elbows on the table. To pass the time, the humans related rainy-day stories from their childhood and the robots listened attentively.
“Ya know,” Steve yawned, leaning back in his chair, tipping it so it rocked back and forth. “I wonder what you guys were like when you were ‘kids’,” he said, as he made quote-marks in the air with his fingers.
Michael laughed. “I don’t think they were ever kids, Steve,”
“No,” he agreed. “They still are kids!”
Rabbit stopped using his hands as puppets, made an indignant face and sat up straighter in his chair. “I resemble that remark,” he said, mock-frowning.
“You resemble a radiator,” Hatchworth joked, garnering him a smack on the arm. “Ow,” he said, chuckling.
The Spine, who stood between Michael and Rabbit, said “If you’d like to see us as ‘kids’, we can show you.” He turned and sauntered into the next room.
“Oh, goody, show and tell time!” Hatchworth cheered and clapped his hands softly.
“Show and tell!” Rabbit cheered as well. His face contorted into a puzzled look. “Wait a sec, what’s The Spine g-g-gonna show?”
In answer, the silver robot returned with a large, vintage, olive-green scrapbook in his arms. He rested it carefully on the table and gingerly opened it to the middle. The stiff, black pages were tattered and covered with small, black-and-white medium-format photos held in place with red, round-edged corners. Some of the photos had been removed. Some captions had been crossed out; the Walter children had apparently gotten to it over the years. A few captions were written in white below some images of the Steam Man Band performing in the 1910’s and 20’s looking much like they did today, but with differently-styled clothes.
Steve laughed. “Yeah, that doesn’t look any different at all!”
“Does so!” Rabbit cried. “I’m wearing a straw hat! See?” He pointed emphatically. “And The Jon is wearing linen pants, and The Spine has a p-p-panama hat. Pretty jazzy, Spine,” he teased.
“Oh, what fun,” Hatchworth chimed. “It’s so neat to see these things that I’ve only ever heard about through the years.”
“Huh?” Steve asked. “You were locked up all that time, right?”
Hatchworth turned to him. “I was “vaulted”, thank you. Locked up is such a mean way of saying it, really, but I forgive you, Friend Steve. Yes, I heard about things because these kind fellows would visit me frequently and tell me all about what went on. Seeing these photos here,...” he said pointing and getting slightly distracted. “Oh my, is that the 1933 Expo in Chicago? Look at that, oh. It’s wonderful.” Rabbit stood to get a better look. He smiled on the picture fondly and nodded in agreement.
They turned the pages and told stories to Michael and Steve about the fun they had. Interspersed with automaton band photos were family pictures of young Walter children. “Now that,” Michael said, “that really makes me realize how old you guys are. Look at Wanda. Are those bloomers?” He indicated to a photo of her and her brother.
The Spine nodded. “Indeed they are. Super cute bloomers, too.” The image was half-hanging out of its red corners--one third of it appeared to have been cut out. There was no caption beneath it.
“That’s odd,” Hatchworth noted, lifting his head to look at the Spine and Rabbit, standing above him. “How come there are no pictures of dear, sweet, Little Melissa?”
Rabbit’s shoulders fell. The Spine’s mouth hung open and he shot a worried glance at his older brother. Too late. The cat was out of the bag. A black oil-tear landed on the table and Michael and Steve gasped. Rabbit put a hand to his cheek, almost as shocked as they were that he was crying. A look of panic crossed his face and distraught and silent, he turned on his heel and ran from the room. The Spine called after him, but he did not respond.
Hatchworth fretted, rubbing his hands and fidgeting, apologizing for whatever it was he said to offend, but The Spine put his hand on his shoulder and quieted him. The humans held their breath. “Don’t worry Hatchworth, it’s nothing you’ve done wrong. Rabbit’s just very sensitive, you know that.”
Michael stared at the photo of Mark and Wanda. “It’s about this Melissa, isn’t it?” he whispered. “Was she in this photo?”
The Spine heaved a sigh and steam exhaled from his vents. He turned a chair around and took a seat next to Hatchworth, across from Steve and Michael. “I suppose it’s too late to back-track now...” he gnashed his teeth and furrowed his brows at the scrapbook. “That’s was pretty foolish of me. I should have thought...” He shook his head. “No matter. What’s done is done. He’ll be alright soon. This isn’t the first time it’s happened.”
The three stared at him, waiting patiently until Steve slapped the table lightly. “Dang it, Spine, you gonna tell us or what?”
He glanced up and made sure he looked into the eyes of each man at the table. “I will, only because we are all his dearest friends--his family, and I think it’s alright, perhaps even important for you to know. But you must swear--swear now--that you will never mention this to Rabbit, ever. It’s very important. You saw how he was.”
“Oh my!” Hatchworth cried and gnawed on his sleeve. The Spine patted his shoulder.
“Do you swear?” All three promised him and he let another, smaller sigh escape. “Alright. I’ll tell you the story. It began before the first war, the Great War, they called it, because of it’s size.” He paused and shook his head slightly. “Just after the war broke out, a rift in the space-time continuum was detected in one of the lowest basement rooms...”
Rabbit ran blindly down the hall, away from the dining room and toward the stairs. He took them three, four, even five at a time, his heavy footfalls echoing through the stairwell as he descended to the sixth basement floor--the lowest level. He shouldered the fire door open and stumbled through into the darkened corridor. Motion-sensor lights activated and dimly lit his way, not that he needed the illumination. He’d been here many times before and knew instinctively how many doors down and around what corner the room was. It was a good five minutes before he reached his destination in the sprawling lowest basement complex which housed the Walters’ most secretive experiments and projects. It was here that Hatchworth had remained in his vault for decades. It was here that the robots were constructed. It was here that Rabbit returned again and again whenever the memory reared its ugly head as it had done in the dining room.
He slowed as he approached a steel door, padlocked shut and marked “Danger: Do Not Enter”. Overheated, Rabbit let out a large plume of steam that curled around the bare bulb over his head. He reached into an inside pocket of his vest and produced a large key. The key turned the lock’s tumblers and it snapped open, granting him access. A soft puff of dust billowed out when the door swung open, revealing an abandoned lab. Rabbit pushed an early-twentieth century lightswitch and a series of clear, incandescent bulbs in simple fixtures on the ceiling sprang to life, illuminating some empty work tables, a half-dozen chairs and an old blackboard on a wooden stand on the far side of the room. This was clearly heavily used in the past and traces of formulas and writing could still be seen on its greyed surface.
Rabbit trudged in, retracing his own footprints and sat down heavily in one of the reinforced wooden chairs which complained under his weight. He sat, slumped, arms folded tightly, facing the southern wall, staring at it as if he were watching a tragedy unfold from its blank, grey, concrete surface. His tears started afresh and he whimpered slightly in the silence.
“The year was nineteen hundred and nineteen,” The Spine continued. “Col. Peter A. Walter III had just come back from the front lines with us and although he had a career as a military man in peacetime to look forward to, we robots were at a loss. His father, The First and his brother, The Second decided we should be recommissioned to suit our original purpose as singing automatons and all of our weaponry was removed. Although The Jon and I transitioned fairly well, (with Jon, most of the painful things in life were easily forgettable, I think) Rabbit just could not seem to get his spark lit. He was literally a shell of his former self. This practically broke the heart of our then one-and-only Walter Girl, Melissa and certainly pained The First, greatly.”
“Rabbit was in love with a Walter Girl?” Steve cried, astounded.
“Oh, no, no. Not that Melissa...” The Spine groaned. “If you’re going to interrupt me, Steven...”
Steve knew when The Spine said his name like that he was serious. “Sorry. Right. I’ll be quiet. Not a peep.” He made a motion with his left hand as if turning a key between his lips.
The Spine gave him a wilting look before continuing. “Rabbit was and is a sensitive sort of robot and seeing such a huge loss of life for such a foolish reason was incredibly hard on him. He didn’t like to be around The Jon and I very much at that time because we reminded him of what we’d been through together. Even when we played lively songs and made people smile, he just went through the motions. At that time and for many years we didn’t write our own songs, only played the popular tunes of the day, just as our human counterparts did. They were all rather cheery and fun and although Rabbit sounded just fine, you could tell there was no joy in his singing.
“The only comfort Rabbit had was being with his ‘Pappy’. The First felt so badly for him, he allowed Rabbit to tag along practically wherever he went. He let him be his assistant, even though he had Melissa to help him with whatever he needed; he’d ask Rabbit to fetch him a sandwich or open doors or turn off the lights--anything to make him feel needed and wanted and to keep him busy. It must have been exhausting. So when this rift started opening in one of the basement labs, Rabbit was there.
“It happened incredibly quickly, opening and closing so fast it couldn’t be measured. For a while it seemed as if it were simply gaping open but The First dared not explore it. He studied it and took readings, trying to learn from it and also be on alert should anything emerge from it. As it started to slow down, The First realized that the rift was in fact opening for exactly one minute and closing again. Measurements were taken and a frequency was established. The duration between the events was increasing at exactly a factor of 42. When it stretched down to about an hour and a half between opening and closing, The First knew that the next time it opened would be in about three days. He marked the time and waited. He planned to send a non-sentient robot in to collect a sample and come back out in less than the minute it would be open. The next time it would be open after that wouldn’t be for another four months. When the rift opened again three days later, no one was prepared for what happened.”