I’ve run a thousand memory simulations trying to bring him back, but nothing is working.
Asteroids are winking past the windows of my room, white trails from the smoldering rocks disappear into the thick black of space. The glare of my computer monitor reflects off the windows of this room, illuminating the massive purple bags under my eyes as I watch the asteroid wink out of sight. I turn my attention back to my task and punch in a few more lines of code to my computer, watching the resulting mountain-shaped lines of audio populate, my fists clenched. The recording has to bring him back. It has to. I promised this to him, that we could live together forever.
My bare feet curl at the cold of the room’s linoleum floor. Sensors have already warmed other tiles to guide me to the bathroom, in an attempt to prod me out of my desk chair to go over and ‘empty my bowels’ – which I just call ‘shitting.’ But I feel like a bit of a rebel today – instead of going to the bathroom, I walk on some of the unlit floor tiles, which are ice-cold, and scamper over to the fridge that’s nearly as tall as I am. A couple of pizza boxes rest on top of the fridge, partially opened, and they almost looks like big sneering smiles, leering down at me. I push the pizza boxes back so they’re further out of eyesight, but hear the shuffle of a lone piece of pizza sound from inside. No, can’t eat that yet. I already had one piece today. But I can put it back in the fridge, so it doesn’t go bad.
As I stick the piece of pizza inside a plastic bag, I stare inside the fridge, which is empty except for two different drinks – a clear container full of something green and vaguely grass-textured – some sort of bullshit health drink the attendant bots whipped up for me. On the other side of the door is the second drink, a half-drunk carton of milk that I forgot to close, and all the better, because I reach out and drain the rest with a few gulps. Ooh, drinking two-percent milk instead of skim. I think. I must be such a fucking rebel. How interesting I am.
Something in my neck stabs with pain, rippling down my back. A spine juts through the skin of my neck, drenched in blood, but beneath the red it is the same shined-grey color of steel. I shiver, try to look away from that dreadful spine, and retch back into the milk carton. Blinking back tears, and trying not to whiff in the smell that reeks of soiled split-pea soup, my eyes catch on the dozens of other spines that line my arms.
I can’t keep going like this. Fucking CEOs in heaven. I think, one more time, and I’m going to lose it. I swear.
This is why all the glass in this room is thick as a fist, and bulletproof. If I ever finally pull the courage together to throw myself through those windows, into the cold, suffocating void of space, the fist-thick glass will catch me and nark me out to the attendant bots. Maybe instead of trying something so active, so obvious as taking my own life, I should just lie back in this black leather chair and let the spines take me.
The program. I glance over at a stuffed brown bear on my desk, one that’s roughly the size of a cat and is clutching a heart that says ‘I love you’ in bolded words. Those three words that keep my body from finally giving in. If I give up, I won’t get to go on an adventure with him again. I need to figure out if memory can form a suitable substitute for live consciousness. Before I lose my memories of him.
Has it been ten minutes since I started my memory upload? I need to get back to check if the test is finished yet. The floor tiles disagree with me, heating up a red-lit path from the fridge to the bathroom that snakes a wide arc around my desk, making use of the room’s thousand square feet to point me towards a toilet and shower. Even my ‘bowels’ must have turned traitor, because something squishes in my underwear when I walk, and the room has started to stink.
My pens neatly stacked head-down in a coffee mug, waiting for me to pick one up and scribble out all the words I’ve written for you. Scores of papers crumpled up and littering the trash can, because anything that I’ve touched becomes worse than trash, it’s no wonder that my chair groans when I sit down in it.
Something stabs in my back as I sit down. I cannot see what happens, but I know enough about the pain now to guess what it is. Another encroaching spine, probably poked yet another hole into my shirt and chair. I must have a hundred of these spines, now. I cram my eyes shut and take even, steady breaths. Focus. I can do this. I must do this.
I reach for a glass of water, without looking over at the glass, so I end up grabbing the coffee cup full of pens instead. Not knowing why, I let go of the cup and watch it fall to one of the hexagonal floor tiles, shattering into chips of porcelain and scattered pens. I don’t smile, or frown at the sight of it. Nor do I reach over to scoop up the scattered chips to toss into the trash.
In no fewer than three heartbeats, one of the smaller attendant bots – a polished thing with little wheels and a series of tubes sworling around its body with pink liquid – delivers a replacement coffee mug to my desk. The mug is a perfect replica of the one I broke, without so much as a crack in its side, and I swear that if I had kept track of the number of pens originally kept inside, this new cup would have the exact same number.
Our god the Dollar has blessed me the luxury of never wanting. Remember one thing about this place, love. Anything can be replicated in this new future. Love is programmable, marketable, ready to ship and order, synthetic as the stuffed bears in the store windows holding hearts, who promise in bold letters that they love you, and when you’re five years old it’s as easy to believe as breathing.
I swivel back to the view of my program. Attempt number 10,153 is going to be the one that brings you back to me, I am sure of it. I hit ‘Enter,’ and close my eyes. Waiting for the program to finally work. I knead my palm into my face as the bars load. This should be simple, making a synthetic representation of you saying those words: ‘I love you’. But my new friends, the attendant bots, have told me – after clearing the information with their superiors – that even the holiest CEOs, the gods of productivity and capital, have their limits. Not everything can be synthesized. Me? I think the bots who claim this aren’t just made of metal, they’re full of bullshit. Love is a simple ‘if, then’ conditional phrase. If I work harder, then you will be here to love me again.
I mash the keys on my keyboard, hoping they’ll speed the progress bar up, as if I’m whipping a stubborn horse, but the computer stays loading at its usual pace, at best a percent per minute. Fucking waste of my time trying to do this bullshit. I should just go and masturbate all day.
It wasn’t too difficult to program a model of your body into this world. The sharp corners of your shoulders, the way your cheekbones look like a ski slope, the cigarette that you clutch so often it might as well be another appendage. But I could never fabricate your eyes correctly. Where yours were like a window into a room full of flowers and freshly-washed sheets, the eyes on this model stare dead ahead with no irises or pupils, just a pair of blue circles. Fuck, it’s disgusting that I’m resorting to this, 4-D modeling you into a sex toy. Then again, you definitely would have written some shit like this into your will. If I die, I leave all masturbating privileges to my partner, Ash.
To my left, some wheels start to squeak. I whip my head around, because that sound can only mean one thing, the attendant bots. The bot is a cylinder of steel mounted with six wheels across its long body, with a head that’s just a thinner cylinder stuck into a hole in its body, rotating in my direction with a near-lethal dose of anesthetic stored inside its tube-like mouth.
Irregular heart rate detected, It says, for your safety, this unit will begin monitoring you at a closer range.
“Oh god, please no,” whisper, quiet enough that I’m sure it won’t hear, “you’re the worst therapist I ever made.”
This unit is glad to see that your vocal chords are working, but you will have to speak up if this unit is to hear you. Good morning, Mx. Elm. Let’s start off with some light questions, to break the ice. First, what is your favorite color?
A lovely choice, Mx. Elm. Blue symbolizes a state of rest, and reflection. Would you say that you are currently feeling this way?
“No.” I mutter.
Sorry. This unit did not hear you correctly. Could you repeat that?
“I said no. I feel like shit.”
Sorry. Please either answer yes, or elaborate on how you currently feel.
“I want to speak with a real-live person.”
Sorry, if you would like to speak with this system’s sympathy apparatus, you will have to explain how you are feeling, first.
“I feel like shit!” I exclaim, raising my hands in a half-clawed clench, “is that what you want to hear? Yeah, I feel terrible. How else could I feel when everything I cared about is gone? Do you know what it’s like to wake up and feel pain across your entire body? Huh? I bet you don’t get these spines. All made of metal and terrible therapist lines.”
“This unit is sorry to hear about your condition, Mx. Ash. Depression is a serious condition, manifesting in many conditions, including: moodiness, low energy, and painful spines protruding across large areas of the body. Solutions: medication and talk therapy. This unit is currently equipped with: talk therapy. Would you like to proceed with this treatment?” the bot chirps in, leaning its cylindrical head against my shins, its ‘skin’ smooth and cold to the touch.
I sigh. “Fine. What could it hurt?”
“A wonderful choice, Mx. Ash,” the bot says, and its metal body starts to vibrate, in a way that reminds me of a massage chair, “Initiating: sympathy. Hello, Ash. Can this unit call you Ash? Good. It is natural that you might feel the way you do, right now. Programming is a difficult endeavor. Especially for the depth of the program you are looking to achieve in simulated emotions. The average programming project takes 141 tries to complete, but for this project, you are on attempt number 10,053. That is a lot of willpower that you are having to expend-”
“Please don’t remind me,” I say, cutting the bot’s rambling off, “please.”
Pip cocks its head at me, “what would you like this unit to do, then, Mx. Elm?”
“Just listen to me, I guess.”
“This unit can certainly do that.”
“Well, how much time do you have?”
“This unit cannot calculate that number. This unit exists until you do not. And how much longer you will exist for is a difficult variable to calculate, as your lifespan depends on many factors.”
“Like whether I give up on trying to live?”
“That is certainly one factor. A willingness to live boosts longevity on average by-” A little motor starts to whir in Pip’s body. His head rolls from one side to the other, sauntering, until he snaps back to face his mouth towards me.
A little bell goes off. “22.3%.”
“Pip, are you making up numbers again?”
“Affirmative,” Pip chirps, “This unit is programmed to act humorously and silly when talk therapy fails, as per system reflections on your memory programming. Our charts reported that you responded 30.6% better when something could make you laugh.”
I smile and drag Pip up into my lap. “Maybe I didn’t completely fuck up when I made you.”
“Complete fuck-up. Unfamiliar with this phrase. Would you consider that a compliment? Our systems consider the word ‘fuck’ as both a positive and negative enhancing word.”
“Sure.” I say, not bothering to say much more.
The bot isn’t much larger than a small dog, so even my skinny arms can manage to bring it into my laugh. The little stack of cylinders rolls around a bit in my lap, clearly uncomfortable at its new role as a lap dog, but it settles and finally lies down after a few moments. My hand and its metallic ‘skin’ do a sort of heat transfer, where it cools me down and I warm Pip up a bit as I do a motion that could be called petting. Soon enough Pip starts to stop moving, save for a few twitches coming from the dart jammed in its cylindrical mouth, as it gives a snore that sounds more like pennies rattling in a tin can.
It’s pretty comfortable sleeping there, isn’t it? I think, mulling over the conversation the robot and I just had. Usually, when I’ve been alone for more than a few days, all I can think of are all the mistakes I made when I was talking with someone. But the moments right after chatting with someone, I always feel so high, so in tune with myself. Well, of course it’s comfortable, sleeping there in my lap. I’m an honest person, so it doesn’t have to worry about what I’m hiding from it. People always know where I stand.
A part of me wants to gag and vomit at the thought of giving myself a compliment, but a rush of tingling energy lights up the neurons in my head. I exhale. Welp, it was nice to say something nice to myself, at least. Have I never breathed correctly before? Because this breath comes so easily, letting out all the tension in my chest, settling my pulse, giving me a rush of energy. Is there some new exercise routine I should download to my mind that would keep me breathing like this? I tentatively look down at my arms, to see if the spines are still there, because the pain has abated, settling to a dull ache. Alabaster-white glimmers back at me under fluorescent light, like a creeper’s teeth leering me in a club, rows and rows of half-inch thick spines that line my arms more densely than my own body hair. So no. I haven’t cured myself of the spines by breathing properly. Big surprise. But at least I found a way to help it, that was innovative of me.
Another easy breath. More of the pain seeping away, and I have to close my eyes to savor it. Can’t let this good energy go to waste, either. Careful, so that I don’t wake the robot, I raise my arms, open my eyes back up, and start typing on the keyboard, blowing a matted strand of hair out of my face so that I can see the code that’s been giving me ulcers. As I resolve the bugs and cook up a new line of code to simulate my boyfriend, I hear a little wheezing sound coming from Pip as he kicks at something in his sleep.
I yawn, pressing enter. A sensor on the right side of my head whirs, buzzes, and gives a little ‘ding’. I have to restrain myself from whooping, or throwing my hands up in joy. Finally. Fucking finally. No bugs. Maybe this time I’ll be able to see him.
Now safe for program entry, the implant whispers into my consciousness, would you like to put yourself into sleep mode?
Gladly, I think, pressing the sensor on my head three times, as I look down at Pip snoring on my lap. I was always one of those kids where if someone else yawned in class, I was going to be next in line. And I haven’t changed much since I was a kid.
My eyes fade into a closing position, the fingers on my hands curl into tight balls, my toes spread out and finally resting on the ground, I’ve been keeping them propped up on my chair for so long. Sweat starts to collect on my brow, and my vision crawls. Has it always been so warm in this room? Ones and zeroes start to climb the walls around me, like ants crawling in neat lines, looking for food. I smile, and a part of me accepts this half-state. I am heading back to him, finally.
I wake in a field of green grass, lying on my back with my toes curling into the mud, field bugs crawling over my skin. Morning dew still clings to the grass, and makes little wet stains on my back that itch something fierce. I’m wearing overalls, because mom says I should always look the part of a farm kid, even if I’m going to go ahead and play with computers all day. I sniffle, taking in the thick smell of sunscreen that’s still fresh and not rubbed into my skin yet.
My friend Rosary is lying next to me, and he’s staring intently at a bug traveling across his knee . Just a week older than me, and always reminding me of it, he has mop of blonde hair that catches in his mouth sometimes. When he smiles, his cheekbones arch up in a way that makes it hard for me to talk to focus on what he’s saying.
“What are you thinking about, crazy?” Rosary asks me, “you’re looking at the sky a lot.”
“Nothing.” I tell him, “I wasn’t thinking about anything. My brain was just wandering around.”
“What does that mean? Come on. I bet it was interesting,” Rosary laughs, and pulls a blade of grass out from the ground, propping it under his nose as if it was a mustache, “look, I’m an adult! I can use big words like you – ghee-oh-teen! I heard that in a video. It was about France.”
“France? We’ve never been there. And, wonderful. I was thinking about-” I pause, and pick a blade of grass, and start to wind it around my finger. Only when the blade forms a perfect spiral around my skin, do I speak back up, “you know. The thing adults talk about all the time, when they think we’re not there.”
“You listen to them when they’re not looking at us?” Rosary asks, “Why? Adults are so boring.”
“I just, you know. I just think they talk about interesting things sometimes. Like death. My mom was in the living room crying, the other day, and was talking to my dad about Bear. How we buried him in the backyard. You remember that, right? Well, I was listening, and my dad told my mom that Bear’s with us in spirit, now, but I think I know better. He’s gone, you know? No matter how much he loved us. We’re going to be like that one day, you know. Dead. And there’s nothing we can do about it. Hey, focus. It might even happen tomorrow.”
Rosary pauses. Watches the bug crawl from his knee, to his shin, and then he crushes it with one finger, just a little bit of force and the bug is a purple splat on his bare shins. “You know what I think?”
“Do I really want to know?” I ask, “the last time you said that, we both ended up with bruises.”
“And we had fun, didn’t we? Here’s what I think, if you’ll stop interrupting me. I think that we’re going to live forever. Just like space men, and Bill Gates. Oh, also we’ll be rich. Don’t forget that part.”
“Bill Gates isn’t going to live forever.” I tell him, wiping at my eyes that have watered up because of my stupid allergies, “he’s just a normal person like us. He has to die someday.”
“No he doesn’t!” My friend cries, slapping his legs twice, “that’s dumb. We can do whatever we want to fix that. You’re the smartest! And I have good ideas. Listen. If you program something on your computer, then we can both live forever. Just put our brains into code or whatever it is you use, and then we won’t ever have to be hungry. Not that I’m not going to be eating. I’m going to eat all the fake pizza your world has to offer. So be sure you program that in, too.”
“No, that’s – wait,” I tug on the blade of grass around my finger, tight enough that it snaps and leaves a red mark on my skin, “huh. Maybe you’re onto something. But it would be really difficult to do. It would take a long, long time. We might not even be alive to see it happen.”
“I knew it!”
“Hey, don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s going to be sooo long before that happens. Like I said, we might not be alive for it.”
“I’m never wrong, though,” Rosary says, “you said that climbing those cliffs was going to be a bad idea, that we could die. But we didn’t die, did we? Sure, we bruised our legs, but we had fun. And you remember it, don’t you? I saw the way you were telling the girls at school about it.”
“Well, I don’t really like those girls,” I say, biting my lower lip, feeling my heart rate pick up, “and I don’t think they like me either. I was just trying to impress them, so they would sit with us at lunch.”
“Why do you want them to sit with us? They suck.”
“Because it stinks, having them laugh at us. And they make me feel bad. And, I don’t know, maybe they’re right about me, and I could learn something from them.”
Right as I say that, the skin on my palm stabs with pain, causing me to bunch myself up into the fetal position. I grit my teeth, trying to shut out the pain. Dare I look? It feels like someone’s stabbed me with a pin and left it in there. I stuff my hand under a pile of dirt, scooting as much grass and earth as I can muster over my skin. Ostriches do this. And I’m as dumb as a big stupid bird, so why shouldn’t I just act like one?
Stab. Needles of lancing pain jabbing into me. Sun from above beating down on me, unmoved by the lip of clouds barely blocking it. Sweat beading on my brow. Breath sucked out of my lungs, I gasp to try and gather myself, pretend that everything is alright, I can’t let Rosary see me in pain. He’ll think I’m the lamest playmate and leave me for one of the girls at school. And then I’ll have to sit at my own lunch table, where I knew I’d always end up.
Stab. An unimaginable, unignorable searing spot of red behind my eyelids that I can see when I close my eyes and grit my teeth. When I open my eyes back up, both of my hands are clenched, and the little veins that run along my skin like lines on a leaf are all bulging, blue and grey.
“What?” My friend asks me, sitting up into a criss-cross position, “are you okay?”
“Yes. I think I’m alright,” I lie, “Just. Digging in the dirt. You know me. Always curious and adventurous, just like you.”
“Why is your hand like that?”
“Like what?” I ask, digging the hand in deeper.
Rosary frowns at me, and grabs my wrist. I wince, expecting to look horrific in front of him, for the webbing between my fingers to be drenched in blood, but everything comes up clean. Just a few bits of dirt, and a bug crawling across my thumb. Stupid thing probably bit me. Rosary slaps the bug off for me, reaches out and adjusts my glasses to sit higher on my nose. Wait. Rosary is touching me?
My mouth hangs open as he finishes adjusting my glasses, his breath creating just the slightest bit of fog on my lenses. If I move, or so much as breathe, I might miss the moment. My skin prickling with electricity. My heart beating out words that I should be saying, but there’s no air in my body left for them.
“Let’s go back in and play some games,” Rosary says, breaking the reverie
“I, I, uh-, well-” I stammer.
“Uh. Are you really OK? You don’t look OK.”
“Yeah. Peachy keen.”
“Come on, then. Let’s get some soda for you. But you have to promise that you won’t tell my mom. She says I can only have one a day, but I won’t let you drink one alone.”
“Well, maybe your mom is right, you know, sugar is pretty bad for you.”
My pulse races, and I clamp my jaw shut, speaking only through gritted teeth. “sorry. That was dumb of me to say. I-, hey, let’s just go inside. Sound good?”
My friend stands up from our green field, slipping his sandals back on. I stare at him, feeling a thousand little prickling sensations spread across my body, just like what I’d felt in my hand except spread across every inch of my skin, except this time it feels good. When I look at him, all that pain turns into something else. A feeling that I would love to chase forever, if I could.
“Ash. You’re nice, you know?” Rosary tells me, “I’m not. And you are. So we make a good team. Every crew needs a good cop and a bad cop. Or a peanut butter and jelly.”
“W-which one of us is the peanut butter, and which one’s the jelly?”
“I’m the jelly, of course. Because I’m sweet, but you’re like peanut butter, the sandwich could go on just being you, but you’re a lot better when I’m around. But you couldn’t have just a jelly sandwich. That would be gross.”
“Yeah. Oh, of course.”
Rosary nods at my response, seemingly satisfied, and reaches a hand down for me to grab. I wipe my face, then wondering why I’d bothered to wipe my face when it’s my hand he’s about to grab, and I link my fingers into his. A smile spreads across my face as we hoist ourselves up. Wow, he touched me again. We never do that. I think, as we pass by a thousand-thousand flitting insects jumping across the grass.
I sigh as the humidity of the outdoors is replaced with a cool, sterile air conditioning that only Rosary’s mom could accomplish, running the cooling for what seems like forty hours a day. The two of us shamble over to the fridge, looking over our shoulders as we do so, because Rosary’s told me his mom is at work, but we both know she comes home early some days. We keep our voices low, too and open the fridge door as slowly as possible, still looking behind us, like we’re explorers stealing something out of a tomb. Rosary tosses me a can of Sprite, and is of course holding another one in his free hand. We touch our cans together, making sure to keep our pinkies out. Rosary accidentally sucks some of the soda into his nose, and I have to keep my mouth pressed against my hand to muffle my laughter, since we’re both in stealth mode.
I watch Rosary cough and flap his arms around, watch him straighten back and smile up at me once he’s finally managed to get his breathing even again.
“I have a secret present for you.” He tells me, once he can talk between the soda bubbles stuck in his nose.
“If it’s secret, aren’t you not supposed to tell me about it?”
“Hush. And wait here. Pretend to act surprised when I bring a gift back.”
Rosary walks into the foyer of his house, makes the ‘I’m watching you’ sign with his fingers, then scurries up a flight of stairs. I wait for a little over a minute in his mother’s kitchen before I hear his footsteps pounding drumbeats onto the stairs again, even with the carpeting there to muffle his advance. I keen my ear to hear something rattling in his arms, any sort of cue that will give away what sort of gift he’s bought for me, hearing none.
I catch sight of a little bit of brown…fur? Then Rosary is there, all smiles, shaking something in my face, and he has to raise his arms up, thanks to our height difference.
“Look! Look, look! When I heard you lost Bear, I figured I would get you a new one!”
I have to take a few steps back to see it, but the gift Rosary’s gotten for me is a stuffed bear, brown and fluffy with a smile that doesn’t make my skin crawl, like most toys do. Instead its big happy eyes and smile make me want to squeeze it, which I do, with Rosary laughing as he surrenders it over to me.
“It says ‘I love you’.” I point out.
“Yeah,” Rosary says, his face turning a beet red, “but I only got that one because it was on sale. You know. Because Valentine’s was a week ago. It was all I could afford, with my allowance. I would have gotten a different one, but-”
“Rosary, it’s amazing,” I cut him off, “if it makes you feel better, I’ll pretend those words aren’t there.”
Rosary exhales audibly. I suppress the urge to laugh, and hug the bear instead, where he can’t see me smiling like an idiot.
Maybe it’s the warmth of the bear, still radiating heat where Rosary had hugged it himself, or maybe it’s because I have a head full of sugar, thanks to that can of Sprite. But I never want to leave this spot. I would rather take every last meal for the rest of my life standing here, with Rosary standing there next to me. We would find a way to make it work – his mom could bring us pizza and we could pay her back by sending emails to her bosses on her computer. Heck, people online already think I’m an adult, for how far I’ve come in programming. But the moment has to die. A part of me knows this, hates but also loves the fact that none of my joy will ever last forever. This way, it is more special. And I can enjoy the next one I get with my friend.
Once I manage to un-bury my face out of the bear, and adjust my glasses back up on my nose, I buzz my lips and shake my head.
“Rosary. This is really, really nice. Too nice. Didn’t you say you were the mean one? I’m going to get you a gift in return.” I tell him, my eyes tearing up. Stupid pollen’s gotten indoors somehow, too.
“No, you don’t have to do that!”
“Yes, I do.”
“Okay, fine, you convinced me,” Rosary says, “now tell me what it’s going to be!”
“I’m going to make that program you wanted. And then we can live together forever. I mean, we can play whenever we want. And you can eat as many snacks as you’d like in there.”
“Without getting chunky?”
“Without getting chunky.” I tell him.
He bounces up and down, clamoring and squeaking excitedly. I smile at him, and feel a tingling spreading through my brain, especially on my right temple. I hug the bear he gave me and start bouncing up and down, too, because why wouldn’t I join my friend? This is the most exciting day of my life.
Rosary whoops, and then I whoop, and we both shush each other because we can hear the garage door opening, with his mom coming home. We exchange furtive smiles and toss our soda cans into the recycling.
That evening, I lie in bed clutching the stuffed bear Rosary gave me, and feel my eyelids close as I give the bear one last squeeze. Maybe tonight I won’t have the nightmares about death again, now that I have a Bear to keep me company again.
I wake up from the memory program, screaming. Back in the room with all the windows surrounding me, the attendant bot in my lap, the meteors streaking across my vision. The computer casting its glare across my face. Whirring sounds in my lap as the attendant bot scuttles awake. And pain. The searing, inhuman pain that follows me everywhere, all across my body. A thousand, thousand pricking needles.
Booting back up. Alert. Subject is waking in intense distress. Pip’s disjointed voice calls out down the room’s one exit hallway, to which red lights start to flash. Shrill sounds, like the calls of metallic birds, race across the walls and fill my ears with their haunting cries. I cover my ears, scrunch my eyes shut, and yell at someone to turn that fucking sound off already. I’m fine. I just had a bad dream.
But it wasn’t just a bad dream, was it? It was my program, the environment I simulated to see him again. Everything was too real, the scent of wheatgrass still on my tongue, the memory of Rosary with Sprite up his nose, all the visuals of green soda can and tan skin painted in full color.
The alarm sound subsides, leaving Pip on the ground prodding at my ankle.
“Please answer the following question,” it says, “would you say that you have an intention to harm yourself?”
“No,” I tell it, “I haven’t had a real suicidal thought in years. Just the stuff that flits in and out of your head. Now for fuck’s sake, can you let me get back to programming? It didn’t work.”
“Explain.” Pip says, and it stops poking its cylindrical head against my shins.
“I saw him, but even after seeing him, I’m not any better. Look.” I tell it.
I raise up my hands with a sneer on my face. And there they are, the rows upon rows of jagged spines poking out of my skin, smiling back at me with their alabaster color. I wish there was a word to describe the experience of going through months of chronic pain. But that word doesn’t exist. So instead I mutter the word fuck. Simple, elegant, and to-the-point.
Simple and elegant. Just like me. With that last thought I exhale, smiling in a weird turn of emotions. Huh. That felt pretty good to say to myself.
The air that I suck back through my nose is sweet, fresh, and sanitized by three separate air conditioning units. How is it that I’ve never taken the time to just take a breath of clean air? I look over my computer monitor and just watch the asteroids flickering off into the distance. It’s amazing, I spent hundreds of millions of dollars to be put up in this penthouse, and I never really enjoy the view as much as I could.
I stand up and clasp my hands behind my back as I take another deep breath through my nose, feeling the tingling sensation spread through my head as the black-lit void of space fills me with awe, and a certain kind of pride that humans like me could conquer even the most inhospitable of environments. We’re an incredible species, really.
“Receiving an anomalous reading,” Pip’s voice cuts in, “your serotonin levels are spiking. For reference to my studies, would you say that you are currently experiencing a good mood?”
“Yeah,” I say, cocking my head at my hands, “you could say that.”
How did that happen? I wonder, looking back down at my hands, upon which the spines have receded so I can barely just see the tips of them poking out of my skin. I’d still probably cut myself if I reached down to scratch my skin, and damn if I’m not as itchy as I can possibly be, but still. Now the pain has receded as much as the spines have, easily about ninety percent of the searing heat spread across my body cooled down. Was I the one who did this? No, it had to be the program. The program worked!
I turn away from the view and stalk back to my desk. The place where I am comfortable, safe, and happy. Everything makes sense when I am sitting at my desk, even pain.
I swivel my chair back to face the monitor, the rectangle some two feet wide that glares back at me. As I face the screen, the pain starts to kick back in. A cramping in my stomach. Needle-like pains across what feels like every square inch of my skin. Already, it’s kicking back in. This is why I should be programming more, improving the simulation. Spending too much time enjoying myself means that I’ll let myself go, that I’ll get overweight, or worse – I’ll become one of the unproductives.
Pip, in an uncharacteristic display, smashes its head against my shin.
“This unit is currently: hungry. Please escort us to the nearest source of oil.”
“Ouch! Pip, what the fuck,” I say, “stop that. Okay, now that we’re not hurting each other we can talk like adults. So. Oil? Since when? I thought you were self-sustaining.”
“This unit is experiencing a malfunction. It is currently unable to self-sustain on solar radiation, as a result.”
I cock my head. Pip has made up all kinds of numbers, in the time I’ve known it. But I’ve never heard it deliberately lie, it just runs the random number generator when it feels like it can’t come up with an answer. It doesn’t seem to have enough brain cell chips in that cylinder to figure out a lie this good.
“OK, Pip. Can you wait ten minutes while I code a bit? I need to finish this next line.”
“Negative,” Says Pip, who then rams its head into me again, “oil is needed immediately. Otherwise this unit will go into an indefinite stasis.”
“Ouch! CEO freaking hell Pip, I’m going to throw you into space and tell the guards units that you did it to yourself,” I say, standing up from my chair, “where do you keep that oil, anyways? And why couldn’t you reach it?”
Pip raises its body and shakes a lime-sized wheel at me.
“So it’s on a high perch.”
“But the guard bots, they couldn’t reach it for you? They have arms longer than I do, and they’re also taller.”
“Negative. GU3RD units are experiencing similar issues to this unit. Systems are reporting that your recent expenditures of power through programming have left us with short-circuiting issues, due to simultaneous grid overloads and disparities-”
“Okay, okay, I get it,” I cut the robot off, running a hand through my hair and turning away from my desk, “I’ll leave you to the renewable energy mumbo jumbo.”
Sure enough, after clamoring over a few piles of laundry I’d been keeping on the floor, I rummage through the utility closet, and find a can of oil on the third shelf. On my way walking back to the robot, I grab the pizza boxes that were sitting on top of the fridge, and toss the boxes into an incinerator. Nasty, that I let this place get so dirty in the first place.
Pip bounces up and down as I hold the can a good two feet above it, making sounds that range between squeaks and beeps.
Now where do I put the oil in this thing? I think. The whole freaking robot is shaped like an exhaust pipe, it doesn’t exactly offer up many places to insert. But I spot a hole in the middle of its back, something that reminds me of the breathing holes that dolphins use on the surface, back on Earth. Hopefully Pip doesn’t breathe through this blowhole – I don’t want to waterboard a robot. Or would it be oil-boarding?
Pip hums happily while I pour fuel into its oil-blow-hole, and I give a soft little exhale when I don’t hear the robot choking, or beeping at me that I’ve started to compromise its system. Nope. Not waterboarding a robot after all. I run a hand through my hair again, forgetting that there’s a dabble of grease on it, and then wipe it on my shirt. Great. Now I’ve got Pip juice all over me.
“Thank you,” Pip says, still humming happily, which almost sounds like one of those antique things – cars – stalling on the street, “you have assisted this unit in restoring to full capacity. You are, what the humans call, a good friend.”
“Hey, yeah, no problem,” I say, rubbing my neck, “it really wasn’t anything.”
“May this unit sit in your lap again?” Pip asks. When it moves, I can see a few splotches of oil where the liquid sloshed up out of the fuel tank and stained its body.
“Is that part of you refueling?”
“No. But it is, what you would call, enjoyable.”
“Alright, fine. But I’m going to towel you off, first. Don’t need to be getting grease on everything.”
After wiping Pip down what seems like three hundred times, each time the towel coming back with a black streak, I manage to get the bot back to its aluminum-gray, polished appearance. I catch myself humming a tune, the kind of diddle that bounces up and down and makes you think of someone walking down a gravel road. Pip wiggles along to it, and brushes up against my shins again, looking up at me with its cylindrical mouth.
“Hold on,” I tell it, “I just need to do something first. Well, I already did something, but you get the point.”
“Be expedient!” Pip says, “sitting in your lap is an urgent matter.”
“Urgent matter.” I say, cocking an eyebrow, “sure.”
Was that smile on my face before? It seemed to creep up on me when I wasn’t watching for it.
I walk over to my desk and set my computer to ‘sleep.’ The sensor on my right temple buzzes, giving me a quick audio heads-up that it will be powering off, now. Fine with me. I’ve needed a break from programming, even if I’m only going to take one for a few minutes. I gaze over down a hallway at a living room that I haven’t even considered until now – a red plush couch that’s easily eight feet across, a fake sheepskin rug resting at its feet. Unlit, jade-colored candles sitting on a coffee table. Objects my attendants bought for me, to help me rest. Maybe if I’d listened to them, and taken breaks from my programming, I would have come up with-
No, I think, just for right now, I’m going to stop thinking about what could have been. I’ll get back to that later.
I make my way over to the couch, the apartment’s well-lit floor tiles guiding me to my destination. Reflections of my body playing off the floor, the stretched image of myself that makes me look a few inches taller. Bits of dust and dirt catching on my feet and hitchhiking over to the sheepskin rug, where they can hide from my attendant bots’ vacuums for weeks. Pip’s wheels squeak behind me, keeping just far away enough that the bot won’t clip against my heels, but close enough that I can hear it imitating the tune I was humming earlier.
“Come on up.” I say to Pip, patting my lap as I sit down on the couch.
If Pip could glare, I swear it would have, just now.
“Right. No arms – I mean, no way to get yourself up. Wheels. Okay then.”
Pip rolls around in my lap a few times, shifting to try and find the perfect spot, which probably takes an hour, except I have no clock in here to measure that by, and there’s always daylight glaring in this room with the same intensity, thanks to my space station’s placement. Day and night cycles are a premium price I didn’t bother to spend on. But watching Pip fall back to sleep in my lap, even with it only being a short while after our last nap, my body starts to yawn and turn my eyelids heavy.
I raise my arm to wipe my eyes, stopping out of habit, for how many times I’ve poked my face with the spines. The spines, I think, looking down at my arm, where did they go? I don’t see a trace of them. Strange, even when it’s something terrible that you get used to, seeing it go fills you with dread. Did they all go into my organs? Am I going to die?
It’s then that I notice the pain has died down, too. The blazing-hot pain that used to cover me from head to toe is now just a dull ache.
“Pip,” I whisper, shaking the robot gently, “hey, Pip. Wake up. I’m getting better.”
“Booting back up. Hello, Mx. Ash. What seems to be the matter?”
“I told you already, I’m getting better!”
“Would you say that you wish to harm yourself?”
“No – what?” I ask, smiling because it’s the only thing I could possibly feel right now, “no, I don’t want to hurt myself. I feel great, Pip. It’s been happening all of today, a little bit the past few weeks, too. But I barely noticed it. But hey – look! The spines are gone!”
“Interesting,” Pip says, leaning its head to look at my arms, “it seems they have receded. Would you say that your depressive feelings have subsided?”
Receded. I think, not completely gone away. Damnit.
“No, I don’t think my depressive feelings have gone away.” I say, and the pain starts to kindle a bit in my bones, “but maybe they’ve gotten better? I could be fixed soon.”
A light in Pip’s head flickers, dancing back and forth horizontally. After a moment, a ding sounds from Pip and it nods. “Affirmative your physical charts seem to indicate that you are improving. With this level of progress, you could be at functioning levels in…two-point-three years!”
“Please tell me that you’re making that number up.”
I look down, and see the spines poking back out of my arm’s skin. Sure enough, I can feel the pin pricks on my neck and legs, too. They seem to be emerging out of new spots now, too, stabbing new holes in my clothing. Perfect.
I stand up from the couch to get back to work. Pip wheels behind me, making all sorts of beeps and whistles as it tries to signal my attention back. I wrinkle my mouth, try not to look down at the robot, and wince as my bare feet touch on cool floor tiles. All the lit, warm tiles are still gathered at the foot of the couch, which I’ve never seen them do before. Always they make some sort of path from one place to another, but this time they’ve decided on a place. Well, I’m deciding not to listen to them. Again.
A sharp pain on my heel. Not from the spines, but from Pip slamming itself into me.
“Wait, Mx. Elm!” it says, “you still require rest.”
“No, I don’t. I need to get back to work. And please, stop hitting me like that.” I say, pushing Pip away with my foot.
Pip slows down, and eventually stops in the doorframe between my office-turned-living-space and the lounge. From there, it just watches as I shamble back to my desk. Making no move except for the horizontal light that bounces back and forth across its head.
All my things are waiting for me at the desk. The crumpled papers in my trash can, the glowing monitor with a thousand possible tasks waiting for me. And the stuffed bear. One of its ears falling off, stains that haven’t come out no matter how many times I put it in the wash. But the letters it clutches still shine faintly. ‘I love you.’ It says.
How am I supposed to resonate with those words, when no one is around to say them to me? No one but a stuffed bear, at least. I snort at the thought and start typing, trying to upload a new memory of him into the simulator. Maybe this one will resolve my pain for good. I just need to take something from our older years again, when we moved in together. Something more intimate will resolve the errors of my current situation, as long as I find the right memory. I hit ‘Enter’ and my computer’s processor whirs, the fans kicking in to suck away all the heat that’s grazing over my bare toes.
I look back over at the stuffed bear. Why do I keep bothering to look at this thing? ‘I love you.’ It says again. The phrase I’ve been searching for. Right there in front of me.
“I love you.” I say, listening to how my words briefly echo across the room.
“I love you.” I say again, feeling the vibrations in my chest. My stomach clenches at the thought of what I just did. Did anyone hear me? Still resting over in the doorframe between my room and the lounge, Pip cocks its head, but does not ask any questions. Thank CEO for that.
Why the fuck did I do that? I wonder, and turn my attention back to the screen. It’s gotta be all the naps. They’re driving me nuts.
I buzz my lips, thinking how I can figure the next programming issue out. As I’ve already figured out, memories of him and I moved in together are fresher, but the freshness weakens the integrity of the file, thanks to emotional biases. Solving this requires a dual upload of an older memory of the person, using experience to ground file integrity. But the memory I’m working with refuses to pair with anything. Hmmm.
As if guided on its own, my hand drags the mouse towards the ‘save’ button on my opened file, then closes the window entirely after we’ve uploaded all our progress. Then I open up a new file, a blank one that hasn’t been pored over hundreds of thousands of times.
What if I programmed something for myself? I think, the thoughts coming to me in an even tone. The hairs on my arms stand up. But that would be betraying him.
I look back to the stuffed bear. Would it?
A headache starts to blossom on my right temple. I perch my forehead between two fingers and exhale. This is too complicated. But I look back up, take a deep breath, and start to punch in the first lines of code. Well, it’s not like he can die again. The worst has happened, I might as well try something new.
Running an analysis of my own memories, the ones without him, is both easier and harder. For one, there’s fewer variables to work with. Less chance of one instance crashing the other, so I can run with more creativity. But I’m not familiar with working with just one personality at a time. How do I figure out how it reacts, without running it in lines of code with other personalities? It occurs to me, then, in the back of my mind, that I’ve been overlooking something in my analysis of the main project. If I don’t understand the personalities in isolation, I can’t understand them in a more dynamic project. This is what I’ve needed to bring him back. To understand myself as a variable, first.
He’s not coming back, though, you know.
Doesn’t matter. And not true. I can bring him back in a different way.
As I work on this new project, Pip hums happily, cruising over to my side – I can only tell it is approaching by how much louder it gets. I pick the robot up without giving it a glance, but once it’s up in my lap, it starts to lean in towards my screen, blipping and whistling.
“A new project, Mx. Elm? Did you finish your last one?”
“No,” I say, “I’m working on something else, right now. But I’ll get back to that.”
“What are you currently working on, then?”
“Myself, I think.”
Image Credit: https://unsplash.com/@narkazo