A Steam Powered Giraffe Fanfiction by Aoikami Sarah
The count-down clock on the wall ticked loudly in the stillness of the basement lab. Facing this stood Peter A. Walter I, his assistant Melissa, and Rabbit. The automaton was silent. He balled his metal fists and stared at his creator. Rabbit was now twenty-four years old and his “Pappy” was shorter than he remembered. He was greyer and his skin was wrinklier. He was not an old man by any estimation, but Rabbit couldn’t help but notice the march of time expressing itself on his body. He raised his own left arm and observed it. He wore a black button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows and his gangly metal forearms appeared weak and frail. His khaki dungarees were held up with red suspenders and a black pork pie hat covered his copper dome. He pulled the brim of this down a little and focused on the clock on the wall. Three minutes and counting. Peter Walter said something to Melissa but Rabbit didn’t hear it. An idea struck him rather suddenly and threw his concentration off. Usually, when something absurd would interrupt his normal train of thought it would make him laugh or react in an erratic manner. Today, it made him frown and ball his hands up into tight knots of determination, much like he did when readying to leap from a foxhole, knowing full well his impervious frame would be shot dozens of times as he was ordered out onto the battlefield.
The rift made a soft crackling sound as it opened, a sliver at first and a millisecond later it gaped open, about four feet tall and ovid, hovering about three inches from the concrete block wall on the southern side of the room. A sound like distant wind through the trees issued from the void. A small remote-controlled robot with triangularly configured tank-treads hummed at the ready at the inventor’s feet. “Now...” Peter Walter began, and held the controller up, just about to send it forward into the rift.
“Pappy,” Rabbit said quietly. “I can do a better job than this little thing.” He stepped forward. Time seemed to slow down. Peter Walter let the remote drop and stepped forward as his first automaton strode past him, his head ducking to fit into the short portal.
“Rabbit! No! What are you...?”
Peter Walter’s voice was lost as Rabbit became completely engulfed in the blue glow. He plodded ahead toward a dark area before him. In under a minute, the dark area grew larger as he grew closer to it and without hesitation, the brave robot stuck his head and shoulders through the back side of the rift and emerged on the other side.
The room he stepped into was nearly identical to the one he had just left, save for the fact that the furniture, blackboard and equipment was on the opposite side and two people stood staring at Rabbit with wide eyes. Across from him stood a woman dressed in a long, white, five-gore skirt and blouse buttoned to her neck with white gloves and a pair of goggles on her head. To her right stood a slender copper automaton wearing a black button-down shirt tucked into a knee-length khaki skirt and a pair of black mary jane shoes on her metal feet, and a black cloche hat with a red ribbon on her head. The woman was ashen. She took a step forward and appeared unsteady. “Momma!” the automaton in the skirt cried and caught her as she fell. Once she was secure, the robot lifted its head and stared at Rabbit with mis-matched green and blue eyes.
“Robert...” the woman whispered. “Oh, dear God what have you done...?” Her gaze focused and she regained her footing, nodding appreciatively to her robot assistant. “Did you see him?” she asked Rabbit urgently. “Did you pass a man in the void?”
“N-no...” Rabbit answered.
Noticing the similarity between the two robots in the room, the woman looked from one to the other and chuckled softly in wonder. “I assume you’ve come from the other side. How odd that an automaton should replace our Robert.” She cleared her throat and with the ease of someone accustomed to dealing with strange things she relaxed and addressed the situation. “My name is Dr. Petra Ann Walter and this automaton is called Muffin.”
Muffin curtseyed slightly and continued to stare at Rabbit.
“Petra...” Rabbit repeated. “I’m called Rabbit. My pa... my creator is Col. Peter A. Walter.” He had meant to say ‘pappy’ as he was wont to do, but the familiarity of it seemed too distant at the very moment to be appropriate.
Petra Walter laughed a dry but honest laugh and put her hands on her hips. “How interesting. A male version of me is sitting on the other side right now, I imagine trying to account for Robert just as we are trying to account for you, Rabbit.” She laughed again. “Rabbit. Robert. Interesting...” She walked to the blackboard and wrote his name with two underscores as well as notes about the time and other observances.
Rabbit sighed and steam curled from his vents. Except for the genders being swapped and the fact that a human and not an automaton went through the rift, it seemed as though nothing was different. He slumped his shoulders and stared at the floor. “I’ve made a terrible mistake...” he whispered. A wave of shock coursed through his circuits as the robot called Muffin reached out and touched his hand. She closed it in hers and smiled on him as he raised his head with a perplexed look on his face.
“It’s ok, Brother Rabbit,” she said in a voice with the same lilting tone as his, only a bit higher and sweeter. “We’ll t-t-t-take care of you.”
Petra Walter replaced the chalk firmly in its wooden rack and spun around to face them. She grinned from ear to ear. “Indeed!” the scientist chimed. Behind her on the blackboard she had written ‘Rabbit’ and ‘Robert’ with great big circles around each name and a line that connected the two. “In just around four months’ time the rift will open again and according to my calculations it will connect our dimensions once more, allowing you to slip back to your world and for my assistant Robert to return to us. Until then,” she opened her arms wide. “Welcome to Walter Manor!”
.x. Present Day...
The humans were leaning forward across the table and Hatchworth gripped the lip of his chair expectantly, hanging on The Spine’s every word. “I know what happened, I remember this story, a little,” Hatchworth said.
The Spine took a long draught from a glass of water and nodded. “We told you some of it as I recall, but not what happened later. We all agreed for Rabbit’s sake to not mention it again.” He put the glass down gently and continued. “Later, Rabbit said he did what he did because he wasn’t thinking at all. He didn’t plan it, just rushed ahead and jumped into the four-foot glowing blue hole and out the other side as if it were nothing at all. The First exploded and tried to run after him but Melissa held him back. Then, just as the time was about to run out, a young man wearing black and blue emerged from the rift and it snapped shut behind him.”
“Whoa,” Michael whispered. “That sounds incredibly stupid.”
Steve shrugged. “That sounds incredibly Rabbit.”
The Spine nodded. “That was my thought. Especially knowing how troubled he had been, it made sense that Rabbit would do something utterly reckless. He was gone without a trace and in his place was this blue haired young man. He told us his name was Robert and that he was a Walter Boy.”
“Whaaaaaat?” Steve leaned across the table on his folded arms. “Walter Boy?”
“As it turned out, Robert was from an alternate universe where Petra Walter was the brilliant mind behind Walter Robotics and her automatons were three girl singers called Muffin, The Bea and The Curve. At the time, Robert was the only Walter Boy. The First was furious with Rabbit and didn’t take kindly to Robert, at least, at initially. When he discovered that he was just as handy as Melissa, he softened a bit. The rest of us, however, kept our distance. It was eerie to be around him. He was upbeat and charming but whenever we saw him we were reminded that Rabbit was gone.
“The First made a countdown clock with alarms all over the house for when the portal would open again in four months’ time. I remember when the twenty-four hour chime sounded--The Jon and I were ecstatic. We spent the entire day in that basement room, waiting for the moment when we’d get our brother back.”
The manor looked the same, smelled the same (to a point) and felt the same. It had the same curtains, carpets, layout, all save the fact that everything was flipped as if mirrored; south was north, left was right. It took Rabbit about a week to get used to this difference, often taking the wrong turn to get back to his guest room and ending up in the library. It took longer to get used to the manor’s inhabitants. After enduring a year of post-war tight-lipped tension in his own Walter Manor, Rabbit was dumbstruck by the brightness and joy exhibited daily by this gender-swapped dimension’s counterparts. Petra laughed, a lot. She checked in on her girls at least once a day, often taking a meal with them, something Peter Walter never thought to do. The girl robots would drink water as she ate and they would chat about everything and anything that came to mind.
One sunny afternoon Rabbit watched the three automatons rehearse for their next performance. Muffin, his dimensional counterpart, insisted he join them but Rabbit begged off, claiming that he would just muck up their harmonies. Muffin’s younger sisters were a tall, cool silver robot with wide hips called The Curve and a smaller, enthusiastic gold robot with curly brown hair called The Bea (which Rabbit understood was short of Beatrice, though no one ever called her that). Watching them sing the current popular songs of the day like "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" and “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” made his gears churn with homesickness, but their performance was wonderful and he couldn’t help but stay and listen. When practice was over and before the girls could ask Rabbit to socialize with them some more he jumped up from his seat on the floor and quickly asked where their creator was at the moment.
The Curve swiveled her head to observe weather conditions outside. A few white clouds dotted the blue California sky. “Oh, she’s probably out in garden, I imagine.”
“Garden?” Rabbit wondered and they explained that there were several gardens surrounding the manor in which the inventor raised rare and exotic plants for various purposes. He thanked them and went in search of Petra Walter.
He found her on the south side of the manor wearing garden gloves, a blue-and-black plaid work shirt and a pair of grey dungarees. She was covered in dirt and humming happily to herself as she pulled weeds from between rows of strange-looking plants. Some had deep violet leaves and intimidating-looking berries. Some bore thorns and others tendrils that snaked around latticework looking more like sea creatures than plants. There were small, brass signs stuck in the ground giving the Latin name for each specimen, but they were unfamiliar to him.
Rabbit clicked and hissed, alerting her to his presence. “Excuse me, Mrs. Walter?”
“Oh, good afternoon, Rabbit!” Petra chimed. “Did you hear the girls’ practice today?”
“I did, ma’am.”
“And so...” she said, climbing out from underneath an impressively large rhubarb. “What did you think? Anything like what you boys do?”
“They’re lovely,” he agreed, purposefully leaving it at that.
Petra frowned slightly and removed her gloves. “Rabbit, come. Walk with me,” she ordered, tossing the gloves into a tin bucket that also held a trowel and shears on her way out of the large, strange garden.
“Yes, ma’am, “ Rabbit said quietly and followed her. When she stopped suddenly, he stopped just behind her.
“I said with me, not behind me, dear.” Without turning, she pointed to the ground to her left then crooked her elbow, expectantly.
Rabbit clenched his fists briefly before stepping up to her side. “Yes, ma’am,” he said again.
“And call me Petra. I am neither a Mrs. nor a ma’am.”
“Yes... Petra,” he said, nervously. When she didn’t take a step forward Rabbit looked over at the scientist. She was tall for a woman, though not as tall as Peter Walter and to his surprise, she was smiling at him.
“Rabbit, it’s alright. I’m not sure what your relationship with your creator is, but you’ve seen me with my girls. I’m not scary, am I?”
Steam hissed, expressing his embarrassment. “No! Y-y-you’re not scary, I’m just...” The automaton pouted and clammed up.
Petra nodded her head. “Right. Let’s walk, shall we?” She wiggled her elbow at him and gingerly, Rabbit laced his arm through hers. They walked around the manor grounds together at a slow stroll. After a few minutes, Rabbit began to relax. The warm sun on his copper face, the scent of whatever dark, purple flowering shrubs they passed, and the steady, measured pace of their footsteps calmed him.
Petra noticed his mouth slide as his jaw relaxed. “What’s he like? Your Peter Walter? You said when you first arrived that I was just like him. I just can’t imagine it! Me, a man!” she laughed.
“I was wrong,” he said quietly. “You’re nothing like him.”
“Oh?” she said, grinning.
“No. You garden. You laugh. You... I don’t know. You’re just different.”
“Is it because I’m female?”
“Probably? I’m not sure. I think it’s deeper than that.”
“Does Peter have any children? Besides you automatons, that is?”
Rabbit had to smile at that. Yes, the robots were his children, weren’t they? “Yeah, he’s got two sons, Peter II and Peter III.”
Petra didn’t have a comment to that, she simply paused a beat then laughed at how ridiculous it sounded to name one’s children the same name. “I don’t have any children,” Petra said when she had expended her giggles. “Never had time, I suppose. The girls are all I have and they are everything to me. I imagine that perhaps because Peter has his human sons he treats you differently than I treat my girls...”
“Oh, no, I don’t think that’s it, I...” Rabbit began quickly, but realized too late that she’d managed to tease information out of him. “I just...”
Petra stopped walking in front of a wrought-iron bench under the shade of an aspen tree. Its leaves fluttered on the light breeze, dappling the sunlight. She pulled Rabbit toward it and they took a seat. Petra took his gloved, metal right hand in her left, pulled it into her lap and covered it with her right. She smiled on him and he released a loud, steamy sigh. “Maybe it is because you’re female,” he admitted.
“I had a father, so I know something about how differently fathers and mothers behave toward their children. Fathers love their children just as much as mothers do, they just show it in different ways. I tend to gush over my girls; I can’t help it. But my father stood at arm’s length, gave few words of praise or admonition and left me to my own devices. Heaven forbid if there was some strife I needed to work through!” she laughed. “He’d be long gone!”
“Oh yes. Men tend to be very quiet. They don’t want to show any weakness to anyone, especially to those who rely on their strength, like their own own family, for example. So rather than risk it, they avoid speaking altogether!”
Rabbit hung his head a little. “Yeah. That’s true.” Petra patted his hand comfortingly. “I never realized men and women were so different,” he said, quietly. “Maybe that’s why Muffin and them are so different than us.”
Petra raised a brow. “Oh?”
“Well, they didn’t have to...” His next thought made him tremble, but he glanced over and saw Petra’s soft, caring smile and arched eyebrows looking on him with utter compassion and patience and he caved. “Muffin is really nice but she’s really different than me because she didn’t have to fight in the war.”
Petra gave him a baffled look. “That’s absurd. Who would put a singing automaton into that horrific...” Rabbit’s gears whirred in panic, but he forced himself to remain seated. “Oh...” Petra gasped and clutched his hand tightly. “Oh, you poor dear child!” Tears sprang to her eyes and her horror and pity passed very quickly to anger. “Who would do such a... Did my counterpart do that to you?” she shouted.
“No! No, not really... he...” Rabbit choked. “He didn’t want us to go, but he allowed it. And we agreed to go. The army wanted... we had... there was s-s-s-so m-m-much...” Oil rolled down his shining copper cheeks. Regardless of how hard, cold and sharp he was, Petra Walter put her arms around the robot and pulled him close to her. Rabbit went limp, rested his head on her shoulder and wept, staining her plaid work shirt. She rocked him gently in her arms like a child. She didn’t say it would be ok, she didn’t shush him or tell him to chin up, she simply allowed him to feel and although his wet, cold heart felt like it was going snap in half, to Rabbit, the release was euphoric.
A long while later, the sun had inched down in the sky behind them making long shadows on the lawn. Petra shivered involuntarily in the chill and Rabbit lifted his head. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, but she shook her head.
“Do you feel better?” she asked softly, squeezing his hand.. He nodded. “Good. Rabbit, I know there are a lot of things that must have been very painful for you to go through. When these memories arise, don’t suppress them--acknowledge them. Shed a tear. Gnash your teeth. It’s normal. Then remember happier times in days past, and those to come in days ahead. Life cannot be lived as if in a dream where nothing ever goes wrong. Without sadness, how would we ever know when we were happy?”
Rabbit gave her a confused look. She pulled a ratty handkerchief from her pants pocket and wiped the black tears from his face. “Muffin, The Curve and The Bea were created the same way--to be able to interact with humans. It’s just part of the deal, I’m afraid. You’ll just have to put up with it. If you ever need to talk, dear boy, I am here.” She stood, bowed, removed his pork-pie hat and kissed the top of his copper skull before turning and walking slowly back to the manor house.
Rabbit sat for a long while on the bench under the aspen and watched the last yellow rays of light play amongst the leaves. After the sun had set, he hefted himself to his feet, worked out the kinks from sitting too long that had started to seize him up a bit and ambled back to the manor while singing a little tune.
“The colonel got the Croix de Guerr, Parrrr-leyvoo. The colonel got the Croix de Guerr, Parrrr-ley voo. The colonel got the Croix de Guerr--the sunofagun was never there! Hinky, Dinky Par-ley-voo.”