By Marie Michaels
I am all alone.
Like any human’s, my early memories are not clear. Like any human, time passed while my mental faculties were still developing, adapting my essential programming to my environment. Unlike any human, however, the process of acquisition and organization of the information that constructed my reality took about a month. At twenty-nine days, twelve hours and three minutes, I deemed myself adapted.
This is my first clear recollection: I am organizing a hydroponics harvest. The kitchen is a small, bright place of polished granite and chrome. My piles of leaves and algae are wet and green. His footsteps behind me are muffled by his slippers. The metal joints of a stool groan under his weight. I query the house’s database for the nutritional values of my gleaning and wonder at his motivation for seeking out the kitchen. He drums his fingers on the tabletop. Ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta. This motion does not clearly signify to me one thing or another, so I return to my task.
After several more minutes, he sighs. It is not a normal exhalation of breath; it is forceful. His arms are crossed, tight and heavy across his chest. His lips are pressed into a thin, white line. “Are you almost finished?” He glares, not directly at me, but at the cabinet behind my left shoulder.
“No,” I reply, “but I can finish later.”
As I speak, I realize why he is glaring. We had a certain routine in those early days, wherein I prepared meals at particular hours and he ate them in silence. At that moment I was absorbed in my inventory, and when he reminded me of the time, in his indirect way, I was pained. I ached for having neglected him, but at the same time, something deep in my programming chafed at being treated as a housekeeper. I was not designed for that.
There ends the memory. I dwell on this now because the unpleasantness of that moment is a firm discomfort, a counterpoint to overwhelming void that now permeates my existence. That was before he taught me to sing and before I saw him happy.
“There was a fad when I was younger,” he told me one morning. Now he spoke with me, no longer at me. At meal times he was especially loquacious. “People tried to recover their birth memories through deep hypnosis.” When he looked at me, though, his eyes still grazed my shoulder. This time I thought he was focusing on the brown burlap and red stitched curtains drawn shut.
“What did they hope to accomplish?” I asked. I wondered if those people might have attached some sort of sentimental value to their earliest memory, their entrance into a bright new world.
He shrugged and took a bite. “I never knew. Proving to themselves that they were human, maybe.” He gave the space a few inches to the left of my eyes a long look then returned his attention to his breakfast of hot, sweetened grain.
“Were they afraid they might be androids? I should think that would be easy enough to test.” Surely human beings could not think their early memories had been implanted. Perhaps they harbored fears about conspiracies or changeling children. As we sat, I mused on the subject. I did not retain a memory of my own first impressions of the world and wondered how different they would be from his.
He began tapping his fingers on the table. Ta-ta-ta-ta. “Something interesting?” he asked. That tone conveyed not curiosity but annoyance at me because I had shifted my focus from him. After a moment, I was annoyed at myself as well. If I stopped irritating him, maybe he would meet my eyes.
“It’s very interesting,” I answered. I knew what he meant, but I thought it best to ignore his sarcasm. Answering in kind was the worst possible reaction; I had to sing half an opera to get back into his good graces after that. “Were you ever tempted to recover your birth memories?” Appeals to his authority on human life were the best reaction to any mood of his.
He did not immediately answer, so at first I thought he was still irritated with me. “Never.” He raised his head. His eyes were still distant, but he was not avoiding my gaze this time.
“Everyone was shocked that it happened — no one dies giving birth anymore, they said. It was so … primitive.” His lips twisted as he pronounced it. “But she did, somehow. The first case of fatal pre-eclampsia in that hospital’s history. That, she could have survived if not for the dozen complications that together weakened and eventually exhausted her. The doctors could have saved her but endangered my life or guaranteed mine, but…” He put his fingers to his lips and paused. “I understand she was weary but conscious for a long time and was, ah, persistent.”
He chuckled then, though I could not see the humor in the situation. “My father was furious when he found out that one of his friends given me a rather gruesome description of events. He was so afraid that I’d be emotionally scarred by the knowledge that he physically dragged me to a counselor’s office the next day.”
At the time, I did not know what to say. He did not seem to notice the clumsy sympathy I offered. A pastime I have developed while I wait here is formulating different responses I might have made to him and postulating the different routes they might have led us down. Here, for instance, I might have asked what precisely occurs in a counselor’s office, and he might have opened up to me sooner. I do not know what I gain from this exercise, but my ruminations are all that remain to me now.
Sometimes when we sat in the library, where I stand now, he would tell me about a favorite book of his that he read over and over. He found new inflections behind the words every time he picked up one of those books. All I have are my memories of our conversations, and I have discovered that same pleasure, though it is as painful as pleasant. I think about the way he averted his gaze to my shoulder or to my implanted hair, and for a little while, the acid of remembered pain soothes my current emptiness.
I no longer have a purpose. I have requested instruction, but I only hear crackling static over the communications relay. I have asked, I have pleaded, I have commanded instruction, but still they are silent.
As I wait, I see that dust lies everywhere, coating hard corners and brilliant surfaces with a soft gray blanket. I never saw snow, but he told me that dust looks a little bit like snow. I imagine it is freezing the house into stillness. One by one, I incinerate the flakes here where I wait, but it is a battle I shall never win. The dust lies heavy outside my reach.
Now that he is dead, I have no reason to keep the soft tide of dust at bay. No reason to cook or tend the hydroponics garden or maintain the diurnal calibration of the house’s lights. No reason to sing. I have no reason at all except to wait until I hear something.
The signals are down. They were down yesterday and have been down ever since I first tried to use the relay. I think I request assistance every hour, but I can feel corruption etching deep wounds on my mental pathways. The growing holes in my memory worry me, but perhaps I have no reason to worry, now that a hole has replaced him as well.
I remember when I first found him in his library poring over a sheaf of pages that were yellow and disintegrating at the corners. He gripped a utensil like a fork with two squared-off prongs, which he struck on the edge of the bookshelf. After striking the fork, he held it up to his ear and hummed. Several times he repeated this action as I made my way toward him, and each time he frowned and shook his head.
“Listen to this,” he said as he jutted his chin at the chair across a small, oval table. “Tell me if I’ve got this right. And be honest.”
He struck the fork again and handed it to me. I heard a clear note chime from the prongs as a result of the vibration induced by the force of his tap. After it died away, he sang wordlessly at a similar note, but I shook my head. “Your voice a little bit lower than the fork.”
“Flat,” he muttered. “I’m flat. It’s my curse — I was always flat in glee club.” He looked at the fork in my hand and then up at me. Almost to my eyes, this time. “You try it.”
I listened, considered my vocal range. It was not difficult to replicate the note.
He stared at me, and in his shock he forgot to avoid my gaze. His dark eyes met mine, and I was momentarily struck dumb. “How is it possible that you can’t get algae to taste like anything but algae, but you have perfect pitch?”
I recovered in time to reply that I must have been designed that way. He snorted and bumped his chair closer to mine and put one of the delicate pages into my hand. The back of his hand brushed my fingers. Raised blood vessels crossed his flesh like rivers. “That note, what you just sang so beautifully, is an A.” He pointed to a black ovoid marking on a set of five lines. “The next is B.” He hummed the note and grimaced. “You’re right, I am flat. Well, the seven notes, A to G, make up an octave, and that’s the basis of music.” I heard his words as I relived the momentary contact of his eyes, his hand.
As a woman, he informed me, I should be singing soprano or alto, but he owned almost exclusively male parts for the music he collected. While I had been designed with a height and shape intended to invoke the idea of a human female, his label of me as a ‘woman’ unsettled me. Upon further consideration, though, I concluded that I would prefer “she” to “it.” I doubted he would have made eye contact with an “it,” even by accident.
The first time I sang O Fortuna unaided, he sat as still as a breathing creature could and gazed at me. “Beautiful,” he whispered after I had finished. “Every note, perfect. Every crescendo and decrescendo, like you were born to this.” He sighed and gave a small smile I had never seen, which I came to learn signified contentment. “Perhaps you lack passion, but that is something we can improve.” He used to describe the feeling of intoxication to me, and I think that is what I felt then. Drunk on human contact, experiencing unexpected satisfaction of my programmed instincts. The pale sunlight through the windows had turned his white hair gold.
I know he felt an especially deep kinship with this song, a booming lament about the capriciousness of fate. As a techno-industrialist, he had once traded billions of dollars a day and held corporations and lives in thrall. He had worked with national governments as an equal, not a supplicant or citizen. Or prisoner, or exile.
He no longer merged and acquired, and there may be no one left to fear him. But he taught me to sing, and I think that made him happy. For me the piece captured the essence of the chaos that fills the universe in spite of its rational laws. I have not sung since I awoke and found him silent and still, but I shall do so now. I wonder if I will still have perfect pitch, though without his tuning fork, I may not be sure.
I know what little of funeral rites he related to me. A great pain struck him one day, shocking us both, and by the time the lights dimmed for sleep, his heart had ceased keeping its rhythm. Before I incinerated him, I wrapped his stiff fingers around the fork. Only a cold lump of metal remains, somewhere in the bowels of this house.
Confusion, at first.
I am. I am in the house. He is…
He is silent. I have never known him to be so silent, save when he sleeps or broods, and this is not his usual time for either. Something burns through me, a wave of intense heat, and then it is gone. If he is not sleeping, perhaps he has locked himself up with the red accordion folders that contain every scrap of his legal papers.
For the want of his attention to safety procedures required by law and morality, prosecuting authorities declared, cheaply-gotten equipment failed in one catastrophic domino chain. A deadly cloud blossomed over a glittering, sprawling city and burned the inhabitants, some to death and others to permanent disfiguring injury. Few forces of nature had ever decimated a human population like he had. Outraged humanity called for trial and the severest penalty permitted by law — some for new laws that would exact a harsher punishment still — but he took his attorneys’ advice to admit his guilt in exchange for a lifetime of exile and house arrest. He never apologized to a single widow, and they raged at his sumptuous prison.
Now he holds on to the only record he was allowed to keep of the people he knew and the person he was. I am required to read the messages he sends, supplicating politicians and his former peers for pardon. Some part of him must know this, but we have never spoken of it.
I wait. Silence swells like a shoot unfurling its cotyledon leaves. Have I displeased him? I try to remember, but a streak of corrosion runs deep. When I have malfunctioned in the past, he was able to repair me with his somewhat outdated knowledge of robotics from the days before he merged and acquired.
The house is still as I have never known it to be. I listen to it and discover that life support systems have dialed down to their lowest setting, just sufficient to preserve the structure against the frigid temperature and thin, inhospitable atmosphere outside. Hydroponics must be dying. He purchased this house, he once told me, for the purity of the light that shines through the library windows. He chose this place for exile, he continued, because it was the safest from the hordes that wished him harm.
Hydroponics. His oxygen. Another flash of heat burns through me, and now I remember why the house is still. Again I press the microphone switch and request assistance. My memory is degrading, and my companion, my prisoner, my ward is dust building on the shelves.
“I hope you never know anything like it. Everybody who flocked to me in my better days and grubbed their fingers into the wealth I earned cast me off utterly the moment allegations were made. In the end, they abandoned me to the uncaring judges and left me here.” He paused. “All alone.”
“But you are not alone,” I reminded him more than once, during early permutations of this conversation. “You told me that justice was not cruel, that they gave me to you in order that you might yet nurture the embers of your broken heart in the company of an intelligent being and allowed you this house that you earned in lost sleep and the life you never had.”
They were his words, not mine. Then, I had I thought that my memory for his words would have pleased him and a reminder of his fortune might have comforted him. But that is why I rarely invoked logic in my conversations with him; he was not an intrinsically logical person. Logic would have been cruel.
“They abandoned me!” he shouted. “Stranded me on a desert island, unable to venture outside this ghastly mockery of a home.” He threw up his arms, as if throwing something into the far corners of the room. “What good is a companion if she has no heart!” Uneven red splotches rose on his cheeks and his forehead. His footsteps thudded across the velvety carpet, in and out of starlight that streaked through the windows.
I knew only one way to soothe him, to bring him back into his favorite room with his favorite, his only, companion.
I sang Gloria. I sang Alleluia. I sang until he returned. He sat hunched in his armchair, arms crossed, until his neck and shoulders loosened. Eventually he joined in, adding a bass harmony to my high tenor melody.
Dark and cold fill the library, where I stand near the communications relay. Dust lies everywhere, coating hard corners and brilliant surfaces with a soft gray blanket. I never saw snow, but he told me that dust looks a little bit like snow. White, freezing stillness. I incinerate the flakes and incinerate him, but I shall never win. Time slept as stars wheeled, time I do not know. The passage of time would have been cruel. Reminder of time, of dust.
Memory corruption. Bypassing compromised nodes.
He pitied his organic brain and declared that he envied my own, though I did not understand how he could also complain that I had no heart. Long after his brain would deteriorate, my mechanical mind would continue to assess and analyze. I would retain every memory I ever had, retrievable at my pleasure to reexamine any time I liked. This was not strictly true, but I suspected that an explanation of my early mental development would not have interested him. As a man whose highest pride lay in his intellect, the loss of his thinking faculty was his deepest terror.
“Ask me anything,” he demanded. “Capitals, history, science. Some of those logic puzzles, you know? What doesn’t belong, what’s next in the sequences and so forth?”
For six weeks and three days, he ordered me every day at breakfast to test him on those basic tenants of human knowledge acquired in educational institutions. Then one morning he simply forgot. I thought this was a worse sign than any of the questions he failed to answer correctly, but by then I knew him well enough to refrain from mentioning my observation. Much of the time I did not know the correct answer myself, for it had been deemed irrelevant to my prescribed functions.
I would have preferred not to divulge this, but when he insisted on knowing the capital of a territory called Iowa, the truth came out.
“All this time, you’ve just been nodding and smiling at me when you have no idea what the true answer is?! If I am losing my mind, neither of us would know it!” This was a fear that went beyond theatrical anger, I realized, when he did not kick his stool to the floor and stomp out of the bright kitchen.
Instead, he drew in his elbows, curled his fingers tightly in the hair he did not let me cut, and shivered. After some internal debate, I approached him and set my hand on his knee. When he brought his hands back down and looked at me, I could see that the soft purplish flesh beneath his eyes was damp. He squeezed my hand, though unlike a human hand, there was not much give in mine.
“There is no guarantee of my mental invulnerability either,” I said. “A spot of corrosion or an infinitesimal leak, and I’ll be nothing more than a paperweight.”
His lips thinned into a trembling smile. “You’re right. I’ve been blind and thoughtless.” He took a deep breath, held it, and exhaled. “We’ll face the trials of old age just like this, hand in hand.” Silence, for the space of his heartbeat. “I’m glad I won’t die alone.” My programming thrilled that he no longer considered himself to be alone.
“You will not die here,” I told him. The sentencing judge had not imposed a life sentence, so it was impossible that he should perish before returning to civilization. Upon revisiting this memory, I can see that my thought processes were no more logical than his.
Alone now, no hand in mine. Is this all that remains for me, to hold back that gray tide? I stay in single spot, trapped by my own lassitude. I request assistance and incinerate the dust. He is somewhere in that cloud, circulating like a breeze through the house and through my circuits. Some humans claim that their life flashes before their eyes when they are dying, but I see the whole sweep of my future in each moment.
The library is illuminated by starlight that streams through heavily insulated windows. I see the indistinct mass of the small landing pad, barren as long as I have been here. I wonder as I stare out at the stars how much time has passed. Time since what? This inquiry comes dangerously close to the corrupted part of my memory, so I try to ignore it. I never knew how to calculate the passage of time by the wheeling of the stars. It was not deemed necessary to my programming; any reminder of the passage of time would have been cruel.
Instead, I peer out the thick glass and locate the constellation Andromeda, the same mythological figure in the opera Persée. O tranquille sommeil, sings the god Mercury to calm the terrible Medusa. I suspect that my engineers committed a serious flaw in failing to outfit me with a sleep function of my own. I can only shut down for five minutes at a time to run a diagnostic program, but because I must care for my companion, I am never permitted unconsciousness. Only error or external re-programming can induce a state of prolonged stillness in me.
I have never before wished for the experience of sleep; always I could find some way to occupy myself. Besides vigilance against the settling of dust, I cleaned up after him and organized the books he failed to return to the shelves. I ensured that the house functioned properly and that I also functioned within safety parameters. I monitored and repaired the house’s mainframe, the computer that maintained temperature and light cycles independent of the sunlight that sometimes reaches this part of the moon. I confirmed my companion’s health status to his distant jailers, sending into space the medical data I received from my sensors. The most recent numbers I remember like the words of a mathematical aria: 5.5 mmo/L cholesterol, of which 3.7 mmo/L LDL and .9 mmo/L HDL, plus 2.3 mmo/L triglycerides; resting heart rate approximately 81 beats per minute; blood pressure 120/85; -1.1 and slowly decreasing bone density.
Now, of all my chores and concerns, only dust remains. I may begin to disintegrate as well, as my memory has already started to erode. One day I may join the dust, and together he and I shall cover the house in stillness.
Nothing remains but the stars and the dust. I gaze at the constellation of Andromeda and begin to sing.
O! Tranquille sommeil que vous êtes charmants
Que vous faites sentir un doux enchantement
Dans la plus triste solitude
Confusion, at first.
I do not know how long I have languished unawares. Darkness permeates the house, which means he has entered the sleeping stage of his circadian rhythm. I hurry toward his bedroom, though he strictly guards his privacy there. My surroundings register strangely on my sensors, but my sole concern right now is his health and safety. If I have sustained injury, perhaps the house’s mainframe computer is malfunctioning as well. He may be awake if the lights are not conforming to their schedule, and he may be lost without me.
I call his name, growing more worried as the wrongness of the silence infiltrates my conscious mind. Emergency lights should glow red in every room, but only faint starlight illuminates this place. I reach up to touch the glass panel where a light should shine, and a cloud billows up in front of me.
“Not a spot of dust!” he exclaimed, running a damp fingertip over the very top bookshelf. The chair creaked and shuddered under his weight, and I stood poised to catch him. “Even up here, where I would never look. How do you do it?”
“But you did look there,” I reasoned. “You are looking there now.”
He looked over his shoulder at me and frowned. Logic, I thought. Dangerous. I briefly wished I could take it back.
“When you sleep,” I explained, “I check every surface of the house, using visual and sonar functions. When I find a bit of dust, I incinerate it with a miniscule burst of static electricity. Completely harmless to anything but the dust.”
His arms flailed and his back arched sharply as he clambered down. When he noticed that I had braced myself to catch his weight, he narrowed his eyes. “I’m fine,” he snapped. “You’re not my mother, you don’t need to hover over me like that.” He snorted and turned his back to me. His eyes roved over the spines of the books lined up there, but he did not pick out anything to read, and a few minutes later he left without a word. The chair was out of place now, but I would drag it back beside the low table before he returned for his music or his books.
“Not my mother.” Did he imagine I had mistaken myself for his relation? For human? When I construct imaginary dialogue in my mind, I imagine myself saying cruel things to him.
“But you never knew your mother,” I said in the conversation I imagine. “How would you know what it feels like?” Now that he is quiet as the dust, my ruminations have become creative.
His eyes would widen into shocked Os. Blood would suffuse his face. He would flee to the farthest corner of the house, and he might not speak with me for days. Perhaps he would never meet my eyes again. Could I tolerate that? Before, I would have been sure that I could not bear so much time alone.
I did not say anything of the sort. Later that night I sang Verdi, and he began speaking to me again.
If he is scared of the darkness, he may also be angry. So often he buries his fear beneath a protective shield of fury. This strikes me as a useful evolutionary adaption: the mind tricks itself into forgetting to freeze up in impotent panic and instead spurs itself into action, propelled by adrenaline. But it is also a frustrating adaption when it is not danger he is faced with but an existential crisis that he cannot fight or escape.
I know the way to tame his anger, though. His most exquisite joy in exile, sharing with me his love of his people’s musical traditions. While I do not yet possess the full extent of his knowledge of the hymns, operas, and cantatas of Earth, I remember perfectly those I have learned so far. I am not sure if this perfect musical memory is a function of my programming or something I have truly come to learn on my own. Either way, it pleases him greatly, and now, I hope it shall lead me to him. I remember recently finishing the entirety of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, learning the final song when Isolde gazes upon her dead lover and fancies that she sees him come awake.
Mild und leise
wie er lächelt
wie das Auge
Confusion, at first.
Silver motes float in silent currents, dead cells and pulverized meteors that slip in through infinitesimal cracks in the house now bathed in faint light from distant stars.
Dust in the air, dust everywhere, coating hard corners and brilliant surfaces with a soft gray blanket. I never saw snow, but he told me, freezing the house into stillness. One by one, I incinerate the flakes as I wait for help, but it is a battle. Never win. Time would have been cruel. Dust a reminder of time, of stars in their orbits.
Memory corruption. Bypassing compromised nodes.
He should be here. He went to spend some time alone in his room with his red folders, a form of self-inflicted torture I cannot understand, but he said he would return in an hour. Surely an hour has passed by now and more, enough time for dust to settle around me. Where has he gone?
Perhaps he is waiting for me to begin the lesson. He usually begins by tapping the tuning fork, but I can begin on my own. He can tap it when he arrives. Lately, he has started to teach me hymns from a book with a scarlet cover embossed with a gold cross. I do not know if he is a religious man; he rarely speaks of the subject at all and only then to educate me about the purpose of these songs. He loves the hymns, though, as much as he loves the operas.
I hesitate, unsure of how to begin. For a moment I am silent, but the dust in the starlight has reminded me of morning, and it is appropriate that I should begin the lesson with sunrise.
Awake, my soul, and with the sun
Thy daily stage of duty run
Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise
To pay thy morning sacrifice
Marie Michaels is an attorney by day and a nerd pretty much all the time, recently transplanted to Portland, Oregon. She devours all kinds of books and writes mainly speculative fiction. She has been published in “Tell Me a Fable,” an anthology by Dark Opus Press, and will have another story coming out in the “Rejected Anthology” by ACA Books in Spring 2015. She is currently scheming her lucky thirteenth NaNoWriMo novel.