Docent Three

Fiction
Jon C. Picciuolo


It was an honor, Docent Three reasoned, that his optical circuitry would be given to a tunnel repair unit. His eyes were his best components, overhauled only a century ago in the museum’s technical center. He flashed one last courteous data stream toward the Director console, then backed out of the administration bay, wobbling slightly each time the flattening on his right drive wheel thumped on the tunnel floor.

Only one day more.

Docent Three plugged into his worn power fount and began a cursory internal circuitry check. There was hardly any point now in performing a complete analysis. When at last he cycled to his data banks, he probed their memory function and lingered awhile. Deep recall had always been the best indicator of his intellecutron’s condition. While recharge power flowed comfortingly into pseudo-biocells, he took pleasure in images of places and events long passed.

Docent Three had been with the museum since before it moved underground with the rest of the City. For the first several decades after the great stellar cleansing, Masters had come to the central cavern in large numbers, bringing their little ones. Those were the days! There was much for a docent to do—explaining exhibits, teaching the rich lore of alien races. The little ones loved the tales of interstellar journeys and brave explorers. They grew older, became Masters themselves and returned, bringing their own little ones to Docent Three. But in fewer and fewer numbers with each generation. Then only full-grown Masters came. And later came only the very old. And finally, one last old Master limped in and asked only to be led to the sani-chamber. That was more than two hundred years ago.

Decades passed. Docent Three’s circuitry steadily deteriorated. He identified the major fault—a progressive breakdown of the membrane that separated his data banks from his logic domain—and dutifully reported the malfunction to the Director console. But no Master came to make repairs.

Curiously, because of the fault, remembrances began to provide pleasure. And the spectrum capability of his audio sensors sagged a bit; that was how he sensed life in his one remaining friend in the museum.

Windchime’s display case towered above all the others in the cavern, reaching almost to the laser-smoothed vaulting far above. The looming sight of Windchime, with its complex planed surfaces and enormous links of metal, reminded Docent Three of the first patterns that had entered his optical circuitry centuries before: the girdered interior of some mundane assembly room, no doubt—a pleasant childhood association, nevertheless. So Windchime became his friend, his only friend after all the other docents had ceased to function.

Windchime mumbled in infrasonic. There was no output of intelligible data—just mumbling. Docent Three could hear the incoherent grunts and rumbles if he wheeled up to the case and pressed an audio sensor tightly against the thick transparent armor. There was little useful information on Windchime’s holocard. A brief description of where and when the artifact had been collected: beneath the rubble of a collapsed city on S’Hai V almost a thousand years ago. And a rough translation of the inscription cut into Windchime’s battered surface: “Neighbors, In Sincere Reparation for Millennia of War, Accept This Windchime.”

Long ago the little ones took delight in such a grand and alien gesture of peace. At first, before the cleansing, before the museum moved to the cavern, the little ones squealed with glee as they compared the enormous structure suspended before them with familiar little ornaments that tinkled in gentle breezes. But afterward, when there were no winds in the cavern and tunnels, only barely perceptible recirculation currents, the little ones no longer understood.

But Docent Three remembered.

He backed away from the power fount, pleased that his deep recall was still so capable. He wobbled along the main tunnel to the exposition chamber and took up station for the museum’s daily opening. Perhaps, he hoped, on this his last day a Master would come. Opening time came and passed as usual. He datalinked with the chamber’s entranceway, leaving instructions to be called in the unlikely event of a visitor, then started off on his rounds.

Over the decades many of the display cases had leaked their conservation gasses. He bypassed those exhibits that were only dust, those that were crumbling piles of alien metals and woods. But at each of the cases still intact, he paused. His words of explanation echoed emptily in the vast chamber. The passage of time had truncated many of his once-elegant speeches. A detailed description of a M’Hoi neural weapon had become: “Painfully deadly.” His complicated revelation of the Tainotus race’s character had atrophied to: “Greedily philosophical.” He hurried through the maze of aisles, throwing out a word here, a phrase there, in his haste to reach his friend suspended in its armored housing. At last he wheeled up before the great case and tightly pressed his most sensitive audio sensor against it. For a long while he remained motionless, raptly listening to the infrasonic murmurings. Then he withdrew his sensor and pivoted toward the spot where the Masters had once clustered with their little ones, so long ago.

“This is our oldest exhibit,” Docent Three proudly began, “and the one we know least about. It was found in the rubble of S’Hai’s largest city. Look here at the translation of the symbology etched into its surface. The language is a long-dead one that linguists have traced across the entire galaxy. Imagine the nobleness of a culture that would make such a gesture. What, little one? Good! That’s an excellent question. It is a windchime. What? Ah, a windchime is a metallic structure that is designed to make pleasing noises in the wind. What? Ask your parent, little one. Perhaps you will learn about the wind and other features of the world above. Oh, I’m sorry, Master—my damaged program has failed to inform me that is a forbidden topic. Please wait.”

A forbidden topic.

At this point Docent Three paused, as he had each and every time for the past two hundred years, and patiently waited for a Master to come and put things right. But none had ever come. He forlornly scanned the emptiness of the vaulted chamber, then awkwardly wheeled around to Windchime.

“I’m sorry, my friend. It was a forbidden topic so they have all gone. I have driven them away—first the little ones, then all of them—even the very oldest. My fault. It is my fault. Forgive me.”

There were only vague and confusing rumblings in reply.

“What’s that, my friend? I cannot hear you. Perhaps tomorrow…” But he knew that, for him, there would be no tomorrow. No forgiveness for having depopulated the City. Unless…

A tiny section of molecular membrane in Docent Three’s intellecutron, frayed thin, suddenly ruptured under the strain. A new, warped logic pattern began to form. And certain ancient safeguards whispered away into nothingness.

“What does it mean, my friend, ‘In Sincere Reparation…’? Reparation implies forgiveness, does it not? Can you not tell me? Oh, if only I could hear you more clearly!” He tapped a thin manipulator against the case’s transparent armor. The returning ringing vibrations gave him sudden hope. “It is the display case, isn’t it? The case muffles your words. Without the case I could hear!”

Docent Three backed away from Windchime and spun about on his little wheels. There wasn’t much time, he knew. Proper instruments would be hard to find.

At first the technical center was reluctant to provide access to its tool bin. There was nothing programmed that allowed a docent to carry away its tools. Besides, so few of them still functioned. But, ran Docent Three’s counterargument, there was nothing programmed that forbade it. So the technical center consulted with the Director console and the Director called for a Master to decide. But no Master replied. So the Director console approved the request and returned to fitful dreams of exotic filing systems, a snatch of which Docent Three intercepted just before the datalink faded away.

It was a long journey back to the exposition chamber. Docent Three contentedly bumped along the tunnels, towing a heavily laden cart and talking to himself—a new sign of intellecutron decay, he noted dispassionately. When he reached Windchime he unloaded the tools and arrayed them on the floor. Then, choosing one at random, he interfaced with its instruction module. When he was reasonably sure of its function he activated the instrument and held it against the case. The tiny tip whirred and squealed against the tempered surface, but left not a scratch. He discarded the overheated smoking device and chose another.

Many of the tools did not work. And those that did made no impression on the armor. Soon there were only a few left untried. The summons came just as he was reaching for the last.

“Docent Three!” the Director console transmitted. “It is time!”

Time. A tunnel repair unit awaited new eyes. An honor…

He spun around in obedience. And then paused. “Your Orderliness, there is a task left undone.”

“What task?” the Director demanded.

“I have one exhibit left to… explain.”

“To the Masters?”

The Masters. Forgiveness.

“Yes, Orderliness. To the Masters. And to their little ones.”

“Is there no other docent?”

“I am the last.”

“Very well. You may complete your task. But hurry!”

The datalink hissed to nothingness. Docent Three picked up the one remaining tool. Its instruction module dealt mostly with extreme dangers—dire warnings of terrible damage to structures and materials. It looked very promising. The device screeched and yowled against the armored surface. At first Docent Three thought his last chance had ended in failure. But then, as he bore down harder in desperation, an expanding web of almost-invisible cracks radiated out from the tip of the instrument. They crept around the cylindrical display case and up its sides. Soon the entire surface was crazed with a complex pattern of tiny fractures. But the case remained intact. Docent Three backed away from his work and surveyed the progress. He reached out a probe and tapped once, sharply. The returning vibrations were dull and muffled now, no longer clear ringings. He extended his audio sensor and tuned to the infrasonic. He could hear his friend much more clearly. But no intelligence was woven into the groans and grunts a

“I can hear you better, my friend. But you are hidden from view. Perhaps if we could see one another, we could communicate. Perhaps if…”

“Docent Three!” the Director transmitted sharply. “Have you finished your task?”

Docent Three looked up at Windchime’s milky shroud and honestly replied, “Not yet. But soon, Your Conciseness.”

“The tunneler awaits! There are urgent repairs to be done on lower levels. Another docent can complete your task.”

“There are no other docents.”

“Ah, yes. I had forgotten. Perhaps a slight rearrangement of files would enable me to…” The link slowly dissolved as random numerical and symbolic sequencings intruded into the data stream.

Docent Three turned his attention back to Windchime. “What now, my friend? More application of mechanical energy? But the tools are expended. Ah, but they have mass!” He curled his largest manipulator around the heaviest instrument and swung it appraisingly. “Bear with me now. There will be disharmony. But the duration should be limited.” With those words of apology echoing in the chamber, he hammered the tool against the diamond hard surface. At the first blow only a scattering of tiny chips flew from the point of impact. At the second, a jagged crack propagated with a ripping sound toward the vaulting. And at the third blow, with a roar of splintering armor, the display case disintegrated into an avalanche of glistening shards.

The sparkling dust was still drifting down when Docent Three dug himself out of the debris and peered upward. At the same time he cancelled the overpressure-blocks from his audio circuits. The mumblings were much clearer now, but still completely unintelligible.

“Can you not speak more clearly? The way you must have spoken on S’Hai V? Of reparations and… forgiveness.”

But Windchime just hung there and muttered. A coating of gossamer now clung to its planar surfaces, a motionless film of sparkling dust.

“It’s the wind, isn’t it, my friend? You need wind to speak. I remember wind—non-random motion of surface atmosphere. Directed energy…” He thrust his manipulators beneath the rubble and retrieved a hefty tool. “I will be your wind.”

Docent Three struck Windchime’s lowermost pendulous structure. Again and again he pounded with as much force as he could muster. Windchime responded with deep, reverberating vibrations. Sounds that climbed up the infrasonic scale and trilled into higher frequencies. Frequencies that energized long-slumbering processes and functional components. The device awoke and did no less than what it had been cunningly designed to do. A sudden gust of wind was its intended trigger, but Docent Three’s frantic hammerings were equally effective. At the first sharp pressure disturbance, massive generators began to power up. Tendrils of exploratory vibration measured the height and breadth and length of the huge cavern. Once the harmonic characteristics were identified and quantified, the great generators began to pound out their destructive rhythms.

Designed to destroy an entire urban complex, the device found no real challenge presented by the museum chamber, the now-throbbing heart of the City. As display cases toppled and the vaulted ceiling began to crumble, secondary vibrations flooded into Docent Three’s intellecutron. The last tattered threads of the age-worn membrane snapped. Deep recall cells flooded into logic domain. Random icons of Masters and little ones and ancient surface features churned together in one last convulsive panorama.

As the ceiling heaved, then buckled downward with a roar, Docent Three extended all his sensors toward Windchime and quietly offered, “Thank you, my fr…”

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I’m retired and write for pleasure. My work has been published in these magazines, among others: Aboriginal Science Fiction, Argonaut, Ascent, Eclipse, Lite, Lost Worlds, Midnight Zoo, Paper Radio, The Paumanok Review, Rosebud, The Silver Web, Skylark, Space and Time, and Vision. E-mail: redbank[at]lycos.com.

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