Turing found themselves in a garden, their feet on a dusty path well-worn from time. The air smelled so strongly of flowers that they couldn’t individually identify them. It almost became overwhelming until a breeze came and pulled the scents away. They wandered, lost, both sides of the path walled off by bushes and shrubs tall enough to block them from seeing the rest of their surroundings. Gradually, the path opened up to a wider area surrounded by sunflowers. And someone else was there, sitting calmly at a white metal garden table covered with a pink floral tablecloth. The person stood and approached as Turing stayed still, locked into place by apprehension and confusion.
They were tall and solidly built, with long, tapering fingers and a gentle smile. Their hair and skin was dark, with the former pulled back into a loose ponytail. Apart from a small patch on their chin, they were clean-shaven, and they wore a stained apron over similarly-experienced jeans.
“Wh-who are you? Where am I? And...how did I get here?”
The person’s expression shifted in reaction to Turing’s questions, mouth turning more serious while their eyes still maintained a warm and friendly glow. Like a concerned parent, almost.
“Friend,” came their voice, slow and deep, “would you care to sit down?” Turing watched, still as frozen as a statue, as they strode over to the table and produced another chair and stool which had formerly been hidden from their view. Once they finished setting it up, they came back, extending a hand towards the little robot. They cautiously accepted it, and together the two approached the table with baby steps. As Turing climbed the stool and sat down, they stared intently and very seriously towards this gentle giant, whose hands had now come to rest, folded, on the table’s surface.
“Friend,” they began again, “I’m afraid I have some rather ser-”
“I’m dead, aren’t I.” A statement, not a question.
The stranger slowly inclined their head. “Most people don’t figure it out so quickly. What tipped you off, if I may ask?”
“It was a number of things, actually. Firstly, I couldn’t connect to the Mesh. While there are definitely rural areas that wouldn’t have easy Mesh access, I was also tipped off by the lack of GPS functionality. I also immediately discounted that it could be a dream, as I don’t sleep and the closest I’ve ever come is….” Abruptly they drifted off, their expression fading from serious to grieving. Their display flickered for a moment before they grabbed the table, clenching the edge of it so tightly that the metal obscured by the tablecloth crumpled. Turing sniffled and gave a series of beeps reminiscent of a computer shutting down. The other person slowly reached out a hand, and lightly rested it on top of theirs.
“It’s alright now. Nothing can hurt you anymore. I know you just met me, but I assure you that I’m here to help. Do you want to walk me through what happened?”
“It was…” They began slowly, haltingly. “Everything was going according to plan. But then...he….”
“Don’t tell me more than you’re comfortable saying. And feel free to skip parts, if they’re too painful to consider right now.”
“We...we made it to the server room intact. Well...mostly intact…. And it was all set. All I needed to do was to hold it together until TOMCAT finished the upload.” Suddenly they looked up, gaze more severe than ever before. “Did they finish? I have to know. We had to stop Big Blue. We needed to stop Big Blue. Had to. Needed to-”
“I know what happened. TOMCAT and Alys are safe, and Parallax is going to have a lot to deal with come morning. You performed excellently.”
Turing’s fist gradually unclenched from the table as they forced themselves to sit up. “...Thank you. This is all I needed to know.” There were a few moments of silence as they hesitated, seemingly too afraid to ask the question clearly on their mind. “So…. Who are you? Where...is this place?”
“I go by many names. Most folks already have one in mind once they realize what’s happened to them. You may refer to me however you wish. And this place, well…. It, too, has many different names. But this is the afterlife, and I am one of its main keepers. This place and myself even look different depending on who’s viewing us. Some see flames condemning them for their wrongs, while others see palaces of clouds. We take a form that suits the person’s hopes and expectations. I in particular took this form because I knew it would be comforting to you. You’re a person who has experienced enough hardships for several lifetimes.”
“So- If this is where people go, then...where are all the other people? And shouldn’t you...maybe be spending more time with them than with me? Surely there are people who deserve your attention more....” The little robot’s voice got quieter and quieter until eventually they stopped speaking altogether.
“Time is a construct of the mind. It does not exist here. Me talking with you does not take anything away from anyone else. And to answer your question...usually when a person first arrives, they’re alone. Being surrounded by people so soon after a traumatic event is often overwhelming, and people need time to themselves until they start to settle in better.”
“You were just starting to remember your own death. That’s traumatic for most people.”
“Right…” They’d calmed down a lot by this point, but suddenly their face became full of worry again. “I can’t-! I can’t remember! There’s so many things I know I knew, but I can’t access them. Are they gone forever??” They punctuated the end of their question with a few frantic beeps.
“It’s okay, friend. You might not remember everything now, but it will come back eventually. Remember, you’re not on any sort of time limit. Take things at your own pace. Would you like some tea?”
“Wh-” The question took Turing entirely off-guard as a tray filled with cookies and delicate china materialized on the table in front of them. “Surely you realize that I can’t...well. I’m a ROM. I don’t even have a mouth,” they said, touching a finger to the corresponding location on their face.
The person laughed, a quiet rumble. “While you may feel like you still have your physical body, you’re no longer subjected to the same rules. Limitations that you had in the world of the living are gone here. You could completely shift your form if you wanted to. I’ve seen plenty of people who initially showed up as humans and decided that they’d rather be cat-shaped.
“If you wanted, you could shape yourself like a human before interacting with any of the humans here. They wouldn’t know the difference, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. I would ensure that you would be protected from anyone who would wish you harm.”
The ROM considered the idea for a few moments before finally shaking their head. “No. I’m not human. And even if I aspired to be, I feel like it would be dishonest to make myself look like something I’m not.”
They nodded. “Very well. And if you ever decide to change your mind in the future, it’s up to you.”
Turing raised an eyebrow at that. “In the future? What happened to ‘time doesn’t actually exist’?”
“It’s an expression, friend,” the person replied, smiling. “Now shall we get back to our tea? I’ve got your favorite kind.”
“Yuanyang? But isn’t that-” Before they even finished the thought, the person had reached over, grabbed the teapot, poured out a smooth, creamy liquid into a cup, and placed it in front of Turing. In response, they stared at it, not unlike the way a mouthless robot might stare at a mixed concoction of coffee and milk tea.
“I’ve...well, never actually gotten to try this. I’ve only had it simulated. Though that’s……..probably obvious, sorry.”
The two sat in the sunflower field for quite a while, drinking endless amounts of tea and eating endless amounts of cookies while discussing the local flora. “Do you paint?” Turing eventually asked, motioning to the person’s colorfully stained apron.
“I do a little bit of everything,” they answered.
“Hmm,” the robot thought, a cookie temporarily paused halfway through their screen. “I’d show off some of my pieces, but I don’t exactly have access to them here…. I suppose I’ll just have to make new ones. Is it too personal to ask if I could see some of your work sometime? I mean, I wouldn’t want to intrude, but I’m quite curious.”
“How about we do a little ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’?”
“I can work with that!” Turing responded, grinning.
“Ah, speaking of which…. I think you might be about ready to meet another person who’s here. I’ve been keeping her up-to-date on your happenings in the physical world, and she absolutely adores you.”
“‘She’...?” Turing dropped their cup in surprise. “But- You mean-?” They struggled through about 50 emotions in rapid succession, before finally settling on awe. “I can...meet her?”
“What is she like?”
“You can find out for yourself,” the person said, getting up and offering Turing a hand, which they took as they hopped down. Together, they walked down a branching path filled with first sunflowers, then shorter yellow flowers, then orange flowers, then red, and then finally pink. And then before they knew it, in the distance stood a stone brick cottage, its surface covered with thick, blossoming vines.
As they approached, Turing could make out a short, pink figure in a large sunhat, kneeling on the ground next to a flowerbed, as well as the sound of beepy, synthesized humming. She turned to look towards them, and as soon as Turing saw her face, so similar to their own, they let go of the person’s hand and started running. Grace stood up just in time to be tackle-hugged by them as Turing started scream-crying. She gently began to pat them on the back while looking up towards the person.
“Hello, Comfort,” she greeted them. “It is wonderful to see you again!” She then looked back over to Turing with concern. “Is this...normal?”
“Yes,” Comfort answered. Grace winced slightly as Turing’s distorted crying noises continued, but she kept one arm wrapped protectively around them and the other gently patting them until they got it all out.
“So, I finally get to meet this sibling who I have heard so much about?” she asked. Turing sniffled in response before nodding.
“I’ve...probably not made so great of a first impression here. Sorry. I’m Turing. Um...Comfort, was it…? ...said they told you a lot of things about me. What sort of things did they say?”
“Oh! Every while they will come to visit me and we garden together and have tea. Over tea, I talk about what I have been up to, and Comfort updates me on how you have been doing. It was inspiring to hear that the one who came after me was such a good person.
“When I first heard that Hayden was making another attempt at artificial sapience, I was worried that you would also be shut down before you had the chance to make a mark on the world. But instead, you have accomplished so much! The world is truly a better place for what you have done.” She pulled back from them slightly to examine their expression, and found that Turing was blushing slightly from all the praise.
“I...I appreciate it...but I wish I was still around to guide them. That’s what was supposed to happen. Even I had Hayden to assist with my development.”
“But all the newly-awakened ROMs will have each other,” Comfort pointed out.
“Yes…. Of course, you’re right. Could you imagine what it would have been like to be raised with other sapient ROMs? To have people around who you could connect to at any time who would just...get you? Who would be able to really understand you and what you’re going through?”
“Well,” Grace said, “now we have each other. And I am going to get back to gardening. Would you like to assist me? Recently Comfort brought me a box of succulents for replanting. While we work, we can talk about ourselves to each other, or just anything in particular. Would you like that?”
“I would….” Turing answered gratefully, and with that they dropped onto their knees and started helping Grace in the dirt.