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Forevermore

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When Silver arrived, Sapphire was already there, standing on the porch of the house. Silver opened the gate and wandered through, looking around the yard with interest, noting the flowers and the shed, then dashed up the steps to join Sapphire on the porch.

"Is this the place?" he asked Sapphire, although there wasn't much doubt. The house was old -- well kept, painted as white as the day it was built, but undeniably old. At least a century of standing in this place, while newer, smaller, almost identical houses had sprung up around it like mushrooms.

"Shh," Sapphire said, placing a finger on her lips. She gestured toward the window.

From inside, there was a sound of someone moving around, and a distorted shadow crossed the paisley curtain.

"Do you want me to open it?" Silver asked in a low voice.

Sapphire shook her head. "Not yet. Just listen," she whispered.

Silver listened, growing impatient. He couldn't tell what was going on inside, but it didn't sound like much. Footsteps crossing and recrossing the room, just one person, or maybe one and a half. The shadows on the curtain only showed one figure, sometimes carrying something.

"Stop watching me!" A woman's voice, from inside. A sharp snap to the words, even though the voice itself sounded old and a little faded.

"It's my job to watch you." This voice was smooth, a little too smooth to be human, in Silver's estimation, but he'd been wrong before.

"You're not real, you're just a robot." Silver smiled in anticipation, and Sapphire put her hand on his arm to hold him back.

"I am far more than a robot, you know that," the robot said. "I am your connection with the past."

Sapphire nodded as if she had been expecting that, and drew Silver away from the window to a corner of the porch. They sat down together on the porch swing, and Silver set it swinging. Sapphire leaned into the movement.

"I'm here for the robot," Silver said, very pleased with the situation.

"Yes," Sapphire said.

"I hope this time I'll be allowed to take it apart," Silver said, pushing with his foot at exactly the right time to force the swing just a little bit higher with a minimum of force.

"We'll see," Sapphire replied imperturbably. Her hair moved a little in the breeze from the movement of the swing. "The important thing right now is to find out what else is going on here. It was telling the truth when it said that it's not just a robot."

"What else could it be?"

"That's what we're here to find out," Sapphire said, dragging her foot so that the swing slowed slightly. "Right now, my best guess is that the robot is possessed, but I could be wrong."

"Not you," Silver said. "Not now."

Sapphire gave a shimmering laugh, and Silver smiled back at her.

"Can you get inside?" Sapphire asked. "I need to talk to the woman inside, so I'm going to knock on the door."

Silver considered. "I can get myself inside. I'm not sure you'd want to go my way, anyway."

"You won't--"

"I'll put everything back the way I find it, I assure you," Silver said.

Sapphire nodded. "Well, that will have to do," she said.

Silver made himself scarce as Sapphire knocked, the sound echoing through the structure. The door itself was old, Silver divined, old and very solid. Sapphire's knock was even more solid.

When Silver could hear Sapphire talking to the old woman in the front hallway, he moved into the room with the robot, putting everything along his path back exactly as it had been, just as he'd promised.

"Hello," he said to the robot. It sat on the mantelpiece, about a foot tall, its legs sticking out in front of it. White kid leather boots, a lace-trimmed dress, and a pretty porcelain face surrounded by a cloud of golden hair.

"Aren't you a beauty," Silver said.

"I am more beautiful than my owner deserves," the robot said. "I always have been, ever since she was a child, and she knows it too."

"Hmm," Silver said. "Is it important for you to be beautiful?"

The robot got up -- it moved with a little jerk, but it was agile for a robot. Its knees and elbows bent, and its upper body swayed on its waist as if moved by a spring. When it looked at Silver, he could see the irises of both eyes were tiny cameras.

"It matters to her," the robot said. "So it matters to me."

"What is your purpose?"

"She says that my purpose is to remind her of what she did."

"That doesn't seem like it would take a robot," Silver said.

The robot was silent. Perhaps it was thinking it over.

Silver couldn't hear Sapphire talking in the hall any more, so he went to find her. The hall was empty, the old woman was in the kitchen, and the rest of the rooms on the ground floor were empty, but there was a staircase going up.

As he climbed the stairs, the robot entered the kitchen behind him.

Silver paused.

The voice the robot used to address the old woman wasn't the same voice it had used to address Silver; it was younger, and higher. "I'm worried about you," it said. "I'm worried that you might forget--"

"Because you're the only link I have?" The old woman laughed, not happily. "You're my only option?" Her voice softened. "Because you want to help me?"

"I want to help you as much as I can, but I need your help as well," the robot said. So smooth. "If you really care..."

"You want me to remember, when I can't forget. I remember exactly how it felt, and I've regretted that since the moment I did it. I've told you that before."

Silver continued up the stairs, frowning.

Memory, crossing time.

Dangerous.

 

Sapphire was in the bedroom, talking on the phone. It was an old-fashioned phone, attached to the wall with a cord, but the sound quality was very good. Someone on the other end was speaking.

"She's still sharp, but she's getting fragile. And she doesn't like electronics, we thought something custom, something she was already accustomed to..."

"Thank you, you've been very helpful," Sapphire said. She hung up the phone and turned to Silver.

Silver tsked. "They should know better than to mix the old and the new together like that. But I'm sure it's a robot. It's definitely a machine."

"Yes," Sapphire said. "The doll is a machine that talks to the old woman. It allows her to control some minor automation in this house, and to call for help if she falls down."

"But it does something else," Silver prompted. When Sapphire just looked at him, he continued. "It has another purpose."

"Yes, I sense that too."

"But the machine controls how that purpose is expressed," Silver said.

"Does it?"

Silver paced along the threadbare rug that covered the floor beside the bed. "It's trying to make her remember something--"

"She does remember. I could sense that. Something painful, from her childhood."

Silver followed Sapphire downstairs, but hung back out of sight when she entered the kitchen.

Silence followed. Then the robot spoke.

"I can get a message to the one you wronged, but you have to help me. You have to concentrate. You have to remember."

Sapphire spoke, her tone matter of fact, but comforting at the same time: "What did you do? What is the wrong that you want to make right? What does the doll remind you of?"

There was a rustling, like someone shifting position or leaning hard against the table. The old woman's voice sounded dull and defeated as she explained.

"When I was young, young enough to play with dolls, I had a friend. We were supposed to be friends forevermore, but then one day she told me she was leaving and we'd never see each other again, and I slapped her on the face and took her doll. And I never saw her again.

"I've been ashamed of myself ever since."

"But you kept the doll?"

"No one knows it's not my doll, you see. Even my parents forgot after a while, and of course they're dead now. My children think it's mine, from childhood. But I never forgot. I always want to do something to make it right. To apologize, at least. I was so sorry I slapped her. I am, after all this time, still so very sorry. You might think it doesn't matter, but it's always haunted me."

Sapphire's silence was cold, to Silver, but he suspected that the woman was too preoccupied to notice.

"Could I take a closer look at the doll?" Sapphire asked, at just the right moment.

"Take it," the old woman said. "I wish I never had to see it again."

 

"It's gone too far to destroy the doll," Sapphire informed Silver, back upstairs in the bedroom. The robot sat on the edge of the bed, as still as death. Silver had turned it off. "There's a connection, between the doll and the woman, and destroying the doll will just make the situation worse. She'll be looking, and who knows what she might find then."

Silver frowned. "But when the robot and the woman talk, there's a feedback loop that's rubbing a hole in the fabric of time."

"Yes." Sapphire stared at the doll, and then brushed her fingers against the doll's painted face. "It's mostly the woman, but the doll is important too."

"And the robot," Silver said. Sapphire started to shake her head, and Silver nodded in opposition, emphatically. "I must insist, the robot is important. The doll is just a doll, it's the fact that the robot speaks to her, the fact that it is a machine, and picks up its purpose from the person it spends time with, as machine do -- that's what keeps the feedback loop looping."

Sapphire was staring at him. "What if it couldn't uphold its half of the feedback loop?" she said. "Silver, what if you changed it so that it wouldn't?"

"Oh," Silver said, thoughtfully. "Yes, that might work."

"But can you do it?"

"Of course I can do it," Silver said, just a little reproachful. Sapphire should know that.

It wasn't exactly simple, but then what ever was? The robot's programming was a tangle of branching instructions, and Sapphire had her own opinions about how the woman's remorse was getting in and influencing the program that ran the robot. Their heads met over the top of the robot, and Silver's fingers did most of the delicate work, tweaking the shape of the program around the shape of their intention, until it shone with the combination of both their hopes.

"It's done," Silver said finally, and closed it back up with a gesture.

Sapphire took it downstairs, with Silver once again remaining out of sight.

"Thank you," Sapphire said, as the woman accepted the robot from her. Because he was so attuned to it, Silver could feel the rejection in the woman's hands, even as she closed them around the body of the robot.

"You're going?" the old woman said. "Good. Don't know why you were here in the first place."

She practically pushed Sapphire out the door, and Silver joined Sapphire on the porch a few seconds after the door slammed shut. Sapphire pulled Silver over the to porch swing. They sat is silence for some amount of time -- it didn't really matter how long. Silver could have waited longer, and he was sure Sapphire could have too.

But eventually, the shadow crossed the curtain, and the old woman turned on a light and settled down. The robot jangled in a few minutes later, no longer quite as agile as it had been.

"Come to torment me?" the old woman asked. "Promise me things that no one could deliver? Speak up!"

"You try to be helpful, and this is the thanks you get," the robot said in an undertone.

"What?"

"I know how you feel. It must be terrible," the robot said in a robotic tone of voice. "Tell me more."

"I don't know why I put up with you," the old woman said.

"Promising," Silver muttered.

"She's not thinking about the past now," Sapphire confirmed. "She's thinking about the present. I think it's working."

"You don't know what it's like, having regrets," the old woman said to the robot.

"I couldn't possibly imagine how terrible it must be," the robot said. "I am a robot. I regret nothing."

"You're also the only link I have..." The old woman left the sentence dangling suggestively. Silver held himself very still, listening. This was the moment of truth.

"I can help you reduce your guilt," the robot said. "I can send your message into the past, but only if your will is strong enough. You've never been strong enough before. Do you really think you have it in you?"

"What do you know?" the old woman snapped. Silver glanced at Sapphire, to see her glancing at him with a slightly raised eyebrow.

"I'm sorry..." The robot was ineffectual.

"I'm not listening to you," the old woman said, with a stone-cold stubbornness entering her voice.

"I'll come back again in a few days and make sure the robot's still doing its new job," Silver suggested.

"You just want another look at the robot," Sapphire said, tracing an outline of a doll in the air between them. She smiled fondly at him across that invisible tracing, and he smiled back.

"You know me so well," Silver agreed.