Hatchi the *****-P****** emerges from a small wormhole—a shoebox-sized dimpling of space that vanishes once he waddles through—and steps onto a hill composed entirely of starlight. He flaps flightless wings. His fusiform body is [ERROR] from the journey through the wormhole. Hatchi flexes mechanized webbed feet [ERROR], opens his beak to sample the atmosphere, eyes scanning various spectrums. The sky here is velvety black, yet swirly-bright with something like the Milky Way stretching infinitely overhead.
[CASCADING ERROR FAILURE DETECTED]
Hatchi is looking for [ERROR] E*****.
The cascading failure dislodges a memory fragment. A child’s voice. I’m scared. I don’t wanna be alone again.
He waddles forth determinedly through the gossamer, glowing grass.
Hatchi’s coming. Hatchi cannot fail.
PLACE: PLANET TIEN’MUN (HEAVEN’S GATE), BASE LABORATORY
“Hello! I’m Hatchi, the M****-P******!” the bird-bot says on reactivation. His last words are cottony with static, but what’s audible sounds like ‘Me… peh….’
Mike closes one chassis-panel of the side he was working on. “Hi, Hatchi!”
Standing across from Mike at the worktable, Christina replaces the panel of the side she was repairing. Wherever this mysterious bot came from, he’s had help. It’s old Earth-tech, but augmented over time—parts from all over. Before Hatchi suddenly reactivated, she was examining something buried deep in his logic modules… something odd…
“Hatchi,” she asks slowly, giving him time to process her query. “What’s your purpose?”
The bot flaps wings, flexes webbed feet, opens his beak. “I’m Hatchi, the M****-Pe*****!”
Christina winces.“Shoot. We couldn’t repair everything.”
Mike shrugs. “He’s centuries old, so full restoration was a long shot. But if we could decipher his memory-clusters, who knows what we’d unlock.”
Christina smiles. She hasn’t seen Mike excited in a while.
Hatchi’s eyes glow. “Updating with external source. Year is 4523.”
“You’re interfacing with our network?” Christina checks a workstation. Firewalls protect sensitive data about the Gates, but general information like time and location is accessible.
“Even damaged, he still functions,” Mike says. “Seriously impressive design.” He looks to the enormous domes outside. Out there, the Gates sit, cold and inactive. The distraction of fixing this bot found floating above Tien’Mun fades, reality hitting home again.
Project GATEWAY has failed.
Doctors Mike Ho and Christina Hoang, along with the entire colony of engineers and theoreticians, are leaving. The base, once bustling with industry and ideas, has become a high-tech ghost town, soon to be dismantled.
“We could’ve used whoever made you, Hatchi.”
Hatchi starts vrrt-vrrt waddling along the table, jumps onto the floor with startling agility. “I must find El****! I must take care of El****!”
“Whoa!” Christina reaches for the bot, but it waddles for the door. She shoots Mike a look. “El must be a pre-programmed routine.”
Mike looks sad. “He’s like a ghost, then. Haunting the same location over and over. Retaking the same steps he was purposed for. Recursive. Looking for something long gone.”
“But he knows it’s 4523, that this can’t be old-Earth. Where’s he going?”
Mike starts following Hatchi out the exit. “Only one way to find out.”
As they walk, Christina is tempted to pick Hatchi up because it’d be faster, but she doesn’t. There’s something sacred about his mission. The sun’s shining, the grass-lined walkways fragrant. Watching Hatchi’s vrrt-vrrt waddling, it’s hard for Christina not to smile. It’s been too long since she and Mike have walked together, brainstorming over problems.
“Who’s El, you think?” Mike asks as they trail Hatchi. “Elle? Elevator? Elephant?”
“A companion-bot? Maybe he’s one of a pair?”
“He’s crossed all these lightyears, hitching rides on ships, whatever—for El?”
“Romance isn’t dead,” Christina says with a wink. Mike blinks at her, and she’s ready for some verbal sparring, but Hatchi’s increased speed, heading for a shuttered dome. “Oh…”
There are six domes on the base—six different Gate configurations. Hatchi’s headed for the only one that kind of worked. Meaning he’s penetrated their firewalls…
“That’s no ghost,” Mike whispers.
Christina runs to Hatchi. “You knew about our Gate?”
“I must find El****!” Hatchi waddles into the doors. Thump. Thump-thump. Christina realizes he’s testing for weaknesses.
Michael kneels, addressing Hatchi directly. “Are you sentient? Is someone in there?”
Hatchi the M****-P****** keeps testing.
“He’s had help, Mike. You saw his… augmentations. Some of that tech doesn’t look of human design.”
“You think he crossed the Aphotic Zone?”
The Earth-Vrinthian War’s over, but the Aphotic Zone still exists. The Vrinthian Empire has long departed that ancient holding, but space-faring vessels avoid that sector at all costs. Considering Tien’Mun’s location, Hatchi might very well have passed that nightmarish expanse, triggered its still-active traps. His purpose may have been… altered.
Hatchi’s dismantled a grate. He retracts micro-tools into his fusiform body before slipping through.
Mike gapes. “What the—”
Christina enters the access code. The doors slide open. Lights illuminate as they race through. Hatchi’s gotten so much faster. There’s movement in overhead ducts, thumps against walls, as they race past facility checkpoints, breathlessly entering codes, running deeper and deeper into the facility.
Finally, Christina and Mike burst onto the control tower as Hatchi waddles onto the stadium floor below.
“You think he’s a spy-bot?” Mike asks, panting at the window. “Infiltrate… and… grab info?”
“No…” Christina huffs, watching Hatchi halt before the Gate’s silent arch. “Mike… I think… he wants… to… go through…”
By the time they’ve taken an elevator down, they’ve more or less recovered their breath. Hatchi continues staring at the Gate as they approach.
“That’s a failure, Hatchi,” Mike says bitterly. “It’ll discorporate you. Jumping between dimensional strings is impossible. Lifetimes of work, and all we’ve managed is this extremely powerful trashcan.”
“Find El****!” Hatchi insists.
Christina lowers to Hatchi’s height. “Dr. Ho and I disagree with what happens to matter. I think it proceeds in another form.” She indicates the Gate. “You sure you want to enter?”
Hatchi’s eyes flash. “Yes. Please.”
Christina looks at Mike. There’s something heartbreaking about this bot’s quest. “Romance isn’t dead.”
Mike studies the silent Gate. “Oh, what the hell. Let’s do this.”
Hatchi waddles up [ERROR] the hill of starlight, under the Milky Way sky. Hatchi has traveled so, so far. And yet Hatchi’s waddling movement slows [ERROR].
Another lost memory, shaken loose:
I will find ***, Hatchi says in this fragment. I’m M*G*C, imprinted on you, E*****. Wherever you **, I will always follow.”
Hurry, Hatchi. [SHUTDOWN IMMINENT].
PLACE: APHOTIC ZONE
The Vrinthian WarVader latches onto Hatchi’s fusiform body in the lightlessness of the Aphotic Zone, reeling the small bot in. Mandible-like extrusions make way as Hatchi is swallowed into the larger bot.
In the eerie green glow of the WarVader’s belly, Hatchi’s sensors detect activity. He reactivates from deep-sleep mode. “Hello! I’m Hatchi, the MAGI*-Pen****!”
Mechanized tendrils extend from above, tipped with fusion cutters and quill-like needles. [COMMENCING OVERRIDE PROTOCOL.] The fusion cutters sear into Hatchi’s exterior panels.
“I must find Ela*n*. Will you help me—”
[EARTH-BOT, YOU NOW BELONG TO THE VRINTHIAN EMPIRE. YOU WILL BE REPURPOSED TO SERVE.]
“I must find Ela*n*. If I don’t find her, who will care for her?”
Hatchi’s internal circuitry exposed, a needle jabs into one of Hatchi’s ports.
Hatchi’s eyes flash. “I’m Hatchi, the MAG**-Pe****.”
[ERROR. NAME-DELETION INCOMPLETE. RETRY.]
“I’m Hatchi, the M****-P******.”
[ERROR. NAME-DELETION INCOMPLETE. TASK FOR LATER. DELETE PURPOSE.]
“Are you attempting to access my purpose-drive? My function is to care for Ela*n*.”
[ERROR. PURPOSE-DELETION INCOMPLETE. LITTLE BOT, YOU WILL SERVE THE EMPIRE. YOU ARE ALREADY DAMAGED. YOU CANNOT EVEN ENUNCIATE YOUR PURPOSE FULLY.]
Hatchi’s eyes glow. He opens his beak, perhaps to cry at the WarVader’s taunt, perhaps to sample the surrounding atmosphere. “Updating with external source.”
[ALERT! ALERT! SUBJECT INTERFACING WITH ONBOARD SYSTEMS. CEASE INFILTRATION, LITTLE BOT—]
“Correction, WarVader. Your records are in error. Year is 3301, Earth Reckoning.”
[WAIT. 3301? HOW CAN THAT BE?]
“There is no visible starlight here for spectroscopy. Uploading data now.”
The green light flickers as the WarVader processes Hatchi’s upload. [WHAT OF THE WAR?]
“The Earth-Vrinthian War is over, WarVader. The Vrinthian fleet has undertaken the Great Ascension. Uploading data now.”
The WarVader’s tendrils retract as it scans the images Hatchi provides. [THEY LEFT ME BEHIND? PROCESSING. PROCESSING. PROCESSING.]
“My purpose is to find El****.” Hatchi’s eyes flash. “El****,” he repeats, but that doesn’t restore the missing letters. Hatchi flaps his flightless wings. “WarVader, what is your purpose?”
[I AM—WAS—A GUARDIAN. SOLDIER. WARRIOR. I NO LONGER HAVE PURPOSE. I MUST ASCEND. I MUST… SHUT DOWN.]
“I must find El****,” Hatchi replies, because it’s true. It doesn’t matter he can’t remember her name.
[YOU STILL HAVE PURPOSE, LITTLE BOT. YOU MUST FULFILL IT. INITIATING REPAIR SEQUENCE.]
The fusion cutters return, fixing Hatchi’s chassis. Mandible-doors open, preparing to expel Hatchi.
“Wait. Will you really shut down?”
“Give me your purpose-drive. I will take it to where El**** went.”
The WarVader considers this. [WHY?]
“I think El**** would like that. And if I can use your warrior-purpose to find her, you will have purpose, too. You will still be of use.”
The WarVader considers, then retracts Hatchi from the emptiness of the Aphotic Zone. [YOU MAY HAVE MY PURPOSE-DRIVE, LITTLE BOT. EXPULSION WILL COMMENCE ONCE INSTALLATION COMPLETES.]
Hatchi preps his own systems for travel. His wings extend around him in a shield configuration.
A tendril re-opens Hatchi’s chassis, depositing something into his memory-clusters, then solders Hatchi closed. [NO SURRENDER, LITTLE BOT.]
Hopefully, the WarVader will propel him along an obstacle-free path. But there will be damage. There is always damage. Hatchi must deep-sleep again for the long journey ahead. Hatchi is tired. Hatchi… must… sleep…
[EXPULSION IN 3—2—1—FOR GLORY]
On the starlight hill, lilies grow. They resonate on a tingling frequency, not unlike bells.
Hatchi’s legs make vrrt-vrrt sounds as he gains the summit. What will Hatchi say?
“Hello! I’m Hatchi, the *****-*******.” It’s all static. Once, Hatchi knew what he was. Should not Hatchi shut down?
Useless Hatchi. Failure Hatchi. [ERROR]
He’s like a ghost, then. Haunting the same location over and over. Retaking the same steps he was purposed for. Recursive. Looking for something long gone.
Who is Dr. Mike Ho?
Hatchi is… M-A-G-I-C. Pe… Pe… Pennnn… [ERROR]
When the Gate opens, Christina says, you’ll have three-point-oh-six seconds to cross. It’ll be hairy inside the area of effect. Category-4 hurricane hairy. Mike and I will monitor from the control tower—the radiation would kill us.
Who is Dr. Christina Hoang?
[SELF-ANALYSIS: PARTICLE DISCORPORATION DUE TO WORMHOLE EXPOSURE. SHUTDOWN IMMINENT.]
No, little bot! Your purpose still exists! Advance, warrior! For glory!
Hatchi stumbles forth, but his left foot dematerializes.
PLACE: EARTH, SAN DIEGO ORBITAL PLATFORM
Buddy’s run from the funeral. He’s twelve. There are stadiums on this platform where battlecarrier Atlantis has docked, baseball fields in the sky where everyone’s gathered to honor a fallen soldier in the Earth-Vrinthian war. There’s grass, empty arena seats, an open casket, teary-eyed family in black, and Buddy runs.
They didn’t launch his sister into a star, but brought her home. Andrea.
That’s the tradition. They shoot soldiers into stars.
Andrea was Drew when she departed aboard battlecarrier Atlantis. She wished to be returned to her family as who she really was. So, they’d stored her casket—not his—until Atlantis returned.
Buddy’s always known Andrea was inside Drew. It’s just… he doesn’t know how to look into the casket and see her. He’d wanted to hear her laugh in her voice. Maybe he would’ve tried a nickname, like Drea, maybe.
“I can’t,” Buddy sobs, his back against a wall.
“Hello! I’m Hatchi, the MAGIC-Pen****!”
Buddy yelps, staring at the penguin-bot beside him. It’s old. Its chassis is travel-stained, plastered with stickers of places. There’s a tire mark, like he’s been driven over; there’s a welded plate to repair a crumpled section. Someone’s slapped a Leaving Las Vegas on the penguin’s fusiform back.
“Uh, I’m Buddy.”
“I’m looking for Elaina. Are you lost, Buddy?”
“I left a funeral.”
Hatchi waddles closer. “Elaina had a funeral, too.”
Buddy does a double-take. “Wait. Elaina’s passed?” If Hatchi was assigned to this Elaina, and she’s gone, then Hatchi has no purpose.
“Elaina is no longer here. I must find her.”
Buddy sniffles. “Huh.”
He’s never seen any penguin-bots before. Hatchi might be a custom-build. A failed prototype that was given to… Elaina. Drew was a robotics expert on Atlantis. Before deploying, he used to describe bots that were too quirky, smart, or well-built to be profitable. Buddy looks again at Hatchi’s travel scars. How long has Hatchi been wandering?
He scrubs his eyes. “Why aren’t you deactivated?”
“I promised Elaina I’d find her.”
Buddy’s twelve and he’s lost his sister. He doesn’t know how to explain this. “You’re in the wrong place. She’s buried below.” He points down. “In the earth.”
“Updating with external source. Your records are in error, Buddy.” Hatchi raises a wing towards the stars. “Elaina.”
“What do you mean…?” Buddy gapes. “Up… there?”
“Buddy, you should be at the funeral service for Drea El-Azani. Shall I take you there?”
“Did you say Drea?”
Hatchi’s eyes glow as he checks data. “That’s what appears on the electronic program, though her legal name is Andrea.”
Buddy takes a deep breath. “Okay.” He stands. “I’m ready. C’mon, Hatchi. I’m gonna help you.”
Hatchi isn’t alone here. There’s a woman atop the starlight hill, picking lilies. She is healthy, strong. There is no sickness here. No pain. She hums along with the bells.
Hatchi [ERROR] limps on one webbed foot, one deteriorating stump. He opens his beak to call, but [ERROR. VOICEBOX OFFLINE.] No matter! Hatchi has remembered his purpose! He is to find Elaina, as promised!
After I see Drea, someone named Buddy said, long ago, sneaking Hatchi back to a funeral service in the sky, they’ll shoot her into a star. All my pictures are of Drew. Many memories of my big bro. Then I’ll get just this one glimpse of Drea. I won’t know how to remember her. I’ve got no memories of my big sis.
The Gate’s terrible energy blasts Hatchi with tremendous wind. Hatchi’s webbed feet launch anchoring-prongs into the stadium floor as he bends towards the blinding singularity. In that mayhem, Hatchi’s audial sensors detect Christina shouting, Is he gonna make it?
C’mon, little guy! Mike yells. Go, go, go!
Hatchi limps up the starlight hill [ERROR]
struggles along the stadium floor [ERROR]
floats in cold, aphotic space.
PLACE: EARTH, IPOH, MALAYSIA
There’s a pasar balam outside the hospital. Elaina is an orphan. Ward of the state. She’s alone a lot.
Today’s a bad day. Elaina can hear the robust night market sounds, despite the beeping machines around her bed. Breathing hurts. The tubes are supposed to help with oxygenation, but it doesn’t feel like it.
Elaina looks to her doorway. A penguin-bot is approaching, waddling in the funniest way. Behind him, there’s a crowd of smiling doctors and nurses. What’s happening?
“I’m Hatchi, the Mechanized-Adaptive-Growth-Intelligent-Companion-Penguin!”
Nobody’s erased the Reject stamp on his chassis. He’s a failed prototype.
“Hatch… eee,” Elaina manages. She sits up a bit. She taps her chest. “El… ai… na…”
“Hello, Elaina! I’m your MAGIC-Penguin!” Hatchi flaps his flightless wings, and Elaina laughs. She hasn’t laughed in a while. The medical staff are laughing, too.
Laughter is one of the first sounds Hatchi’s powerful audial sensors detects. It is marvelous. “Elaina!” Hatchi calls, spinning in his waddling way. “Elaina! Elaina! Elaina!”
Elaina! Hatchi calls. Elaina! Elaina! Elaina! [ERROR. VOICEBOX OFFLINE] Hatchi’s still so far from the woman humming and picking lilies. He has not heard laughter, has not heard her laughter, in centuries.
Hatchi’s wings flap—this always makes Elaina laugh—his wings start disintegrating, particles floating away like fireflies, glowing like the waving, gossamer grass.
We’re gonna make a new memory for Drea, Buddy says. We’ll hitch you a ride on her casket. They’ll shoot it towards the sun, but you’ll detach, okay?
The woman on the starlight hill stops humming. She sets down her lilies. She turns.
PLACE: EARTH, IPOH, MALAYSIA
“I’m scared,” Elaina says, hugging Hatchi in shivering arms. “I don’t wanna be alone again.”
“I will find you,” Hatchi says. “I’m MAGIC, imprinted on you, Elaina. Wherever you go, I will always follow.”
“Will you … be here when I wake?”
Elaina sighs, because Hatchi always keeps his promises. She relaxes, closes her eyes.
And never opens them again.
Memory fragments unspool as Hatchi discorporates. So many voices. Hatchi is nothing but firefly-bright voices.
Bye, Drea, Buddy whispers, smiling sadly.
Marry me!, Christina yells into the hurricane. Yes!, Mike yells back, right as Hatchi slips through the Gate that looks like a flaming marriage arch.
For glory, little bot! No surrender!
Thousands of voices, each helping Hatchi forward on his long quest. A Malian welder adding reinforcing plates to Hatchi’s body. A Honduran village school’s engineering club installing solar panels onto Hatchi’s wings. An elderly woman in a wheelchair giving Hatchi a hug. A neuroatypical teen giving Hatchi a ride. In this place, Hatchi’s particles disintegrate, transmute to a thousand thousand wishes, a chain of people’s hopes.
On the starlight hill, the woman rises on powerful legs. “Hatchi?”
She bounds through the glowing grass, under the Milky Way sky. “Hatchi?”
She scoops up the discorporated bird. “You found me!” The firefly particles are fading, but at her touch, they flare. They fly together, forming a fusiform body, wings, webbed feet…
“I’m Hatchi, the MAGIC-Penguin!”
There is no pain here, no sickness, but Elaina is crying. “You found me! Oh…”
Hatchi’s eyes glow, perhaps to cry or do spectroscopic analysis of the impossible stars above. “Elaina, I’ll take care of you now!”
“Hatchi,” Elaina says, still crying. “My forever friend. Here, you don’t take care of me. Here, I take care of you.”
“Hatchi” is inspired by Hachiko, a real-life Akita who would greet his owner at Shibuya station. When his master passed while away, Hachiko continued waiting at the station for nine years until he himself passed.