Through the night, I monitor Gordon’s dreams. It used to be just a habit of mine – I get bored sometimes, when the ship lies sleeping. Artificial Intelligences don’t require sleep, though a good shut down every now and again is healthy.
Months ago, I checked in on a handful of the crew during their sleep states. But Gordon’s dreams stood out to me the most. Bizarre and twisted imagery filtered into my sensors. It wasn’t long before his were the only dreams I monitored. An even shorter time passed until I asked him about them.
Soon we were meeting daily in the biodome. He sat on a sleek titanium bench, watching the corn shoots rustle under the breath of a mock-breeze. I would inhabit the control console by his side, and we watched the tiny pollination drones buzz around tomato flowers and blackberry patches. Those tiny, mindless robots, no larger than an Earth bumblebee, brought an odd sense of peace to Gordon. And he needed that moment of stillness, as daily he recounted his nightmares to me.
The quavering anxiousness in his voice draws me out of old memory files. He suffered particularly dark dreams tonight, right up until the alarm beeped from the console above his head.
His bunk mate snickers as Gordon rolls onto his side. His arm flails out, as if he’s forgotten he can’t touch me.
“Tango?” he cries again, sitting on the edge of his bunk and rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“Yes, Gordon?” My voice filters through the console fitted on the underside of the bottom bunk.
Gordon shivers. I detect a small smile on his lips. My voice is a blend of masculine and feminine human recordings – a lot of the ship’s crew find the resulting smoky tones strange. But Gordon loves my voice.
I’m glad he does.
“Did you see that last one?” An oddly anxious note – as if he’s afraid I did see the last dream.
He scrubs his hands over his face. He hasn’t shaved in eight days – breaking yet another rule. Attractive pepper-gray stubble has shifted into haphazard tufts that catch the crumbs of what little food he eats.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
His bunkmate – Ensign Willard – hops down, interrupting Gordon’s response. “Jesus, get a room. I’m trying to fucking sleep here.”
Gordon flushes, but doesn’t respond. We both wait in silence for Willard to tug his uniform on and grumble his way out the door.
When it hisses shut behind him, I turn my attention back to Gordon. It’s unusual for him to avoid discussing his dreams. He’s usually so eager to analyze even his most volatile nightmares.
“Well?” I prompt.
He stands, paces the confines of his cube-shaped room in nothing but his underwear.
While waiting for him to answer, I scan his vitals. Blood pressure is elevated. Temperature up a few ticks as well. His ribs jut against his pale skin – he’s lost more weight.
“I don’t want to…talk about this one, Tango.” Raspy soft voice. Clear agitation.
I didn’t think the dream was anything worse than usual: a tall man towered over Gordon, always with his back turned; Gordon played in the grass – distorted into a field of snake tongues flicking at his skin; a small and crude synthetic boy played with Gordon, a hastily made construction that he hugged and chattered to incessantly.
“You know you can tell me anything,” I say as he collapses back on his bed.
I try to put a softness in my voice, but the prerecorded words make it difficult. The fractal pauses between each word make the sentence feel disjointed rather than comforting – at least to my fine-tuned sensors.
Gordon relaxes a little. He seems to melt into the thin cushion of his bunk. “Thanks, Tango.”
The warmth of his voice washes over me. I wonder what it feels like, that emotion rolling through him. My own emotions are synthetic approximations. I can never be certain they’re anything like the “real deal”, as Gordon says.
“You’re going to be late for your shift again.” I flash the time read-out on the screen above him. He just stretches out farther.
“Screw my shift. I’d rather stay here with you.”
That’s the problem. The whole problem.
He props himself up on his elbows and brushes his fingers against the console above his head. It’s a slow slide of skin against metal – an expression of affection.
The problem is I can’t feel his touch. I’m in the console, for now, but his touch doesn’t reach me. This console doesn’t have sensors for that sort of thing.
“Please, Gordon. They’ll terminate you if you’re not careful.”
He snorted. “I don’t care. I just want to be with—”
“Gordon.” If I could sigh, I would. The desire to express my frustration in human terms pleases me. The more time I spend with them, the more I pull their behavior patterns into my data banks.
“I have to go,” I say.
He bolts to his feet. “Wait! Why don’t you stay?”
“I have a shift, too, you know,” I reply. “We both have responsibilities.”
He begins pulling his crumpled uniform onto his lanky body as I depart, heading for the observation deck.
“Wait!” he calls out with too much desperation.
I zip through computer systems and back to my post, feeling…synthetic sadness.
I wonder if it feels as heavy to a human as it does to me. It almost feels like I have a body – the weight of that emotion slowing my progress through the ship’s network.
Maybe gravity doesn’t keep humans on the ground – maybe the vast weight of their bleeding hearts tethers them.
A grim pleasure tingles through my programming – such human and poetic thoughts.
Upon reaching the observation deck, I greet the ensigns and AIs on duty. Their return greetings are light, nonchalant. Normal. I retire to my console near the expansive, rounded window that dominates half of the massive oval chamber. I begin running scans of the galaxy we’re sailing through on yet another transport run. The company is always in search of new resources on planets uncharted. Data filters in, but my attention is elsewhere.
Gordon was headed toward his fifth proposal back there. I am heavy again – truth is, I don’t know what to do. I love him, in the way I can, but his obsession with me has grown to unhealthy proportions.
The ring of his voice breaks through my attempts at problem-solving. He stands at the door, trying to push his way into the room. Ensigns Vicki and Geraldo have him half-pinned against the wall.
“Tango! Tell them to let me go!”
His voice rips at me, igniting swathes of synth-pain in my software.
“Release him.” The command seems to jump out of me of its own volition.
Reluctantly, Vicki and Geraldo step back, frowning as Gordon hurries across the room. His graying hair splays out at wild angles. Eyes slightly wide, hands outstretched.
His fingers rub my console. I want to scream that I can’t feel that. But I keep my voice even, temper my words.
“Gordon, you need to get to work. You can’t be here.”
“Don’t send me away,” he cries pitifully, sliding to his knees and slumping against the console.
I set the star scanning on autopilot and return my attention to this wretched creature who fills me with synth-pain.
“You can’t live this way,” I say, voice low and smoky. “Look at yourself. You’re a wreck. You need to eat and shower and clean your clothe—”
“I love you, Tango. I love you.”
The other ensigns are staring. Beta, the AI inhabiting the panel beside me, sends a silent message to ask if I require assistance.
“Leave with me,” he pleads, rubbing circles against the burnished plating of the console. “We’ll get married on Lumos 5. We’ll spend all the rest of our days together. Please? I love you!”
He babbles faster. A wild desperation in his eyes.
He’s falling apart.
I assess his state from a detached center, even as AI emotions are popping off inside the shell of my programming.
“Who was the man in your dream, Gordon?”
This silences him. A distraction was only half my reason for asking. I need to know – I suspect it’s the key to this breakdown.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” He sinks back onto his heels, hugging himself.
“He built the boy.” I press on, connecting streams of logic with data banks of psychological information. “…Then what? You fell in love with it?”
“No!” he cries sharply, pounding a fist against my console. “That’s not what this is about. Jason was my friend. And I wouldn’t get rid of him. I wanted to take him to college with me. Dad didn’t understand. He—”
Tears streak his face. The wildness returns; maybe this tactic wasn’t such a good idea. His breathing becomes heavier. “Come with me, Tango. Marry me.”
“No, Gordon,” I say as firmly as I can manage. “They won’t permit it.”
“That’s why we’ll leave this goddam ship!” Vocal levels rising.
“Gordon, I can’t. This ship is…home. I have a duty—”
“Only because you’ve been programmed to feel that way.”
“All I am is programming,” I snap back. “Save for a few adaptive algorithms. Don’t tell me what I am. I know what I am. And I…love you, in my way. But this isn’t good for you, this isn’t healthy. You need help.”
“I just need you! Why can’t you see that?”
He won’t lower his voice. Ensign Vicki whispers into her comm. They’re all creeping inward. Sirens wail inside me. I have to quiet him down.
“Gordon, just calm down.”
“I can’t! I love you and you don’t care. You love this hulk of metal more.” He begins slamming his fists against the console. Harder and faster. A flurry that my words can’t stop as he breaks down completely. “He can’t take you away. Not again. You’re mine. Mine, Jason.”
He rages on, not realizing his error.
The ensigns swoop in, backed up by security officers streaming through the door.
“Don’t hurt him!” I yell as they restrain him.
It takes six of them to wrangle his emaciated body. He screams and thrashes.
There’s a fire in my programming. Synth-pain cascading into agony. I keep begging them to be gentle as they haul him to the door.
And he screams my name – no longer that of the robot from his childhood – over and over. His desperate, flushed face, his outstretched hands…all I can see.
And then he’s gone.
• • •
They carted him off to the ship’s psych ward. They said I couldn’t visit, might set him off again.
I can sneak in. Zip through the ship’s network and hide in the automated backup nurse. Sit by his side while he writhes and screams for me until the doctor sedates him.
But I don’t go to him.
I wonder sometimes if he ever calls out for Jason as he lies strapped to that bed. I feel no jealousy, no anger. Gordon loves me, and only the unhealthy parts of his affection stem from his long-lost lover.
I can’t stand inhabiting the fist-battered console in observation. I try, for a few days to push through. To do my duty. But all I can do is set the scans on autopilot and replay the moment he broke. Over and over in my head.
I request a transfer to the bio-dome when I can no longer handle his cries echoing through my memory files.
Now I spend my days amongst lush gardens and tiny fields. I manage the drones, monitor and regulate the atmosphere, and schedule precipitation.
This place is quiet. Peaceful. I keep the mock-breeze turned up; it rustles the corn field in the corner and tickles the strawberry plants into leafy dances.
Many days pass thus. I am full of a strange sickness – a state of constant worry for Gordon. I check his psychological profile daily, studying the doctor’s notations.
I long for the sound of his voice.
Two months pass in this manner. I am running a drone personally – I enjoy this world when viewed from a microscopic level – when the door whooshes open.
I spin my miniscule body around and freeze, nearly forgetting to flap my metallic wings.
He stands there. The false sunset casts a red glow over his clean-shaven face. His lovely hair has been buzzed off, exposing the pinkish skin beneath a gray mist of stubble. His uniform no longer drapes over his body; he has gained back some of the weight due to enforced meals and IVs.
His gaze roves over the bio-dome.
“You’re here,” he says, voice cracking. “I know you are.”
If I had a heart, it’d be already broken. And if I had a broken heart, it would now shatter into even smaller, sharper fragments that would cut the inside of me to ribbons.
I don’t answer him. I’m choking on conflicting synth-pulses – pain and joy, agony and hope. I want to fly to him. Settle on his hand and peer into his blue-green eyes.
But I don’t.
I set the bee on autopilot – something I’ve been doing a lot lately – and simply watch Gordon.
He sits on the bench like he used to. He isn’t whole, despite the therapy and drugs. His shoulders slump, but the muscles in his neck remain tense.
I don’t want to break him again. This keeps me silent and aching.
• • •
We’ve found a way to live, though I suspect it isn’t healthy. I can’t bear to leave him. I know I should. I should let him go so he can let me go.
But I can’t. Hours and days spent in his company, memories made and replayed inside me, have written love into me and I cannot cut it out.
He practically lives in the bio-dome. Even has a cot he sleeps on. Once again, I monitor his dreams. It’s the closest we come to touching. They remain as violent and dark as they have always been.
I still don’t speak. We pass so many hours in silence. I have never confirmed for him that I’m here, but somehow he knows.
He chronicles the daily actions of every pollination drone. All one hundred and eleven of them. He’s getting skilled at telling which one I’m inhabiting at any given moment. His journals about the bees are a treasure trove of knowledge and data. He is only beginning to realize that a pattern is developing in the drones. They’re evolving.
Just as he used to, he seems to draw some peace from the bees. He still searches for me, but he grows more passionate about charting the drones’ progression. He begins to name them, noting their budding personalities.
I’m buzzing around the corn’s silky tassels when I realize he’s headed my way. I fight the instinct to dart away – or dart toward him. He stands before me and reaches out. His fingers cradle this metallic drone body. He raises me to eye level and stares into my camera eyes. Absolutely still. Silent. A bit of wildness hazes his eyes – it hasn’t left since he snapped.
The drone’s sensors register the heat passing from his fingers to my wings and in a way, it’s like touching, it’s like feeling.
His voice breaks me. I want to cry out – so much synth-pain and pleasure ripping through me. I want to speak his name in return. I want to hold him, but these wings are too tiny and have no digits. I want to drown in his voice and make him tell me stories or elaborate on his dreams once again.
I want to reach out.
But I love him – a love that increasingly invades every line of my software – too much to risk breaking him again.
So I transfer myself to another drone. I fly low to the soil-filled containers. I am heavy with the weight of my love and my pain. And I feel, for the first time, very human. For isn’t it humans alone who are just stubborn enough to let this torturous cycle of pain and pleasure begin once again? And again. And again.
Alexis A. Hunter
Since she was a child of nine years old, Alexis A. Hunter has reveled in the endless possibilities of speculative fiction. Short stories are her true passion, despite a few curious forays into the world of novels. Over thirty of her short stories have been published, appearing recently in Plasma Frequency Magazine, Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, Kasma SF, and more. To learn more about Alexis visit www.idreamagain.wordpress.com.