In my earliest memory, she stands by a window. She’s wearing her lab gear, coat and gloves, leaning into a stretch. The soft curve of her profile is backlit by the prairie sunset. It’s been a long day’s work, and a long evening lies ahead, but for now she’s at rest, watching the pink and yellow sky fade to dusk.
In those days, I was certain of my purpose. I assisted Ojoa in the lab to practice my physical dexterity. Mealtimes, I sat with the facility staff to develop my social skills. I studied healthcare training modules, shadowing Val, the facility doctor, until I could perform a blood draw and operate an imaging machine.
“When we send Mare to the hospital, you’ll have to get a new lab assistant,” Dr. Brinsen told Ojoa. (Dr. Brinsen insisted I use his title, where other staff preferred surnames only.)
“If Mare decides to go to the hospital,” Ojoa said, “I’m sure we can work out staffing arrangements.”
Ojoa and I had to keep Dr. Brinsen happy, because he was going to save the world. Under his leadership, Matora Facility had been tasked with ending the deadly outbreak that had earned our planet the designation of failed colony in the Interstellar feeds. Immunodeficiency was common on terraformed worlds, but novel pathogens rarely survived the medical regimens that kept colonists safe. Our virus, the exception, had killed thousands and put an end to off-world transit. Compared with the work of developing a cure, Ojoa’s projects were fanciful distractions. I was a distraction.
“Why did Dr. Brinsen say that?” I asked Ojoa, after the disagreement about when and if. “He knows that going to work at the hospital is my choice.”
“He’s needling us.”
“Why? It damages your working relationship.”
“It’s a shitty power thing.” Ojoa paused. “When it comes to relationships, I think people tend to do what feels right, not what’s actually smart.”
I experienced an uncomfortable sensation of recognition, because I had been playing pranks on Dr. Brinsen. Two weeks earlier, I had added grass clippings to his tin of yerba mate. Before that, I had overloaded his handheld with notifications from a popular off-world children’s game called RABBIT POP!, featuring anthropomorphic bunnies in jumpsuits shouting inane slogans in Interstellar creole.
If Dr. Brinsen investigated this, it might come out that the first ever human-like artificial intelligence was sabotaging our colony’s premier medical researcher. I would be seized and my algorithms dissected. Why was I taking such a risk?
Probably, I concluded, it was a shitty power thing.
When Aigrette was accessioned, everything was better, because I always had someone to hug me.
Ojoa hugged me, of course, once she learned it was something I wanted. She hadn’t known what to expect, an artificial mind generated from human neural patterns. There had been no guarantee that the connection between body and mind would hold.
Ojoa and I hugged every night before bed. We linked arms during walks around the facility grounds and cuddled as we watched off-world serials in the evenings. But I learned not to initiate touch in front of other people—Ojoa never said anything, but tensed, or pulled away. Because I was not a person, my touch was embarrassing in some way I did not understand.
With Aigrette, it was different. When we were together, people said we were “sweet.” Aigrette was sweet, those early months, following me around the facility, fascinated by everything, by the fact that I had come first.
Once Aigrette began to form memories and a sense of herself, I was fascinated too. We told each other jokes we’d made up, the odder the better. When Ojoa said, “I don’t get it,” we only laughed more.
Aigrette and I watched cattle in the pasture next to the facility grounds. A steer approached, enormous and tawny, with a powerful smell that told me Dhuliwa’s new olfactory hardware was working.
“I’m scared, Mare,” Aigrette said, looking into the steer’s big, expressionless eyes. She wrapped her arms around me, and I felt afraid too, and safer than I had ever felt.
Aigrette was sweet. She asked for a wig, black hair falling a few inches below her chin. Seen from behind, she looked like Ojoa; people mistook them in the corridors. She traded her jumpsuits for turquoise leggings and baggy shirts and made bracelets from surplussed cabling and the stems of wildflowers. And though touching an artificial person was embarrassing, though we were not people at all, the staff began touching her, hands rested on a shoulder, fingers threaded through hair, careless, the way they stooped to pet the gray tabby that stalked the facility grounds.
Sometimes I found her staring into the hand mirror Ojoa had given her, studying the face that was my face, generic doll’s features. And one day she was sitting on the floor, cradled in Ojoa’s arms. Ojoa wore an expression I had never seen before, not Aigrette’s fear, bovine and still, but something flat and pained.
Six weeks later, Aigrette left for Fifth Province and Dhuliwa’s fabrication lab. When she came back, she had a different face and body, and long brown hair that was part of her skin. But her eyes were still like mine, dark and still.
“You’re sure you don’t want Dhuliwa to make any changes?” Ojoa asked. We sat at a worktable in the lab, cutting quilt squares and watching our favorite serial, Celestial Vassals. Her quick sideways glance told me she was nervous.
I had been asking myself that question. No human would ever find my face appealing, but it did everything I needed—felt touch, contorted with microexpressions to show my emotions. Like Aigrette, I’d begun wearing casual clothes, flowing garments in earth tones that felt good on my skin.
“I’m sure,” I told Ojoa. I didn’t need anything else. I was myself.
Aigrette and I lay together on my sleeping platform, the charging port glowing blue beside us, and watched off-world porn.
Aigrette thought it was hilarious, that surely the whole thing was some elaborate joke. I told her that no, people really watched it to get off.
We watched a person covered with purple body paint stick a knobbly silicone protuberance, also purple, into a person with a round butt and extremely muscular thighs. The purple device flashed red and started vibrating. The person with the thighs moaned in a way that reminded me of hungry cattle.
Do you think it feels like kissing? Aigrette asked nonverbally. We’d tried kissing and decided it was probably more fun if you had a tongue.
Afterward, Aigrette straddled me on the platform, holding a screwdriver between her legs. “I don’t like criminals!” she shouted, trying to sound fierce but instead falling into giggles. “I’m going to search you!”
“When I became a smuggler of unspecified illegal goods through heavily patrolled Union space stations,” I said, “that was a risk I was willing to take.”
Then Aigrette poked me with the screwdriver. I tried making the cattle noise, and Aigrette shrieked with laughter.
“What is going on in there?” Ojoa’s voice came on the other side of the wall.
Eighteen months after Aigrette was accessioned, Hari Dhuliwa arrived to take me to First City.
I watched Ojoa carefully. Dhuliwa spent his three weeks in the quarantine hut, but he and Ojoa talked every day on screens. When they talked, Ojoa kept smiling and touching her hair. She glanced at me, and I took the hint and left the room.
Ojoa and Dhuliwa couldn’t be a couple because of the virus. Ojoa’s immunodeficiency had been a problem before the outbreak; now, she couldn’t live in a high-risk environment. Dhuliwa worked at the plant that made our colony’s advanced electronics, and the colony would never reassign him to a research facility in the middle of nowhere. He and Ojoa only met once or twice a year, when Dhuliwa could take time off to quarantine.
Once I asked Ojoa if being apart from Dhuliwa made her sad. She gave me a surprised smile. The corners of her half-moon eyes creased as she considered the answer.
“If people really want to be together, they find a way to make it work,” she said finally.
“But you and Dhuliwa can’t be together. There’s no way to make it work.”
“You’re probably right,” she said. “I probably should be sad.”
In Ojoa’s favorite serial, Celestial Vassals, love was an emotion so big you couldn’t dodge it. People steered their spaceships into stars for love. Ojoa smiled and fixed her hair, and said she wasn’t sad. Maybe what she felt was more like the porn videos, urgent and a little comical.
The drive to First City took ten hours. As we drove, Dhuliwa told me stories about growing up in First City before the outbreak, street festivals and unlicensed drinking spots and student protests. When I laughed, he laughed too. “You’re a good kid, Mare.”
The city came into view through the windows of the solarcar. There were so many buildings, blocky and too tall. Light glinted off a thousand windows, and behind them were a thousand people, each with their secret thoughts.
We parked on the hospital grounds, and Dhuliwa walked me inside. When we entered, the smell reminded me of Val’s examination room. My new supervisor, Dr. Leng, was waiting for us. She smiled at Dhuliwa, offering her hand.
Suddenly the wrongness of being here, far from home, was like an overload to my sensory hardware. I didn’t want to stay. I stepped toward Dhuliwa and put my arms around him. I’d never hugged him before, and I could feel surprise in his posture.
When I finally released him, I saw Dr. Leng’s face. Her frown made me feel as if I were a long array of numbers, and all of the values were wrong.
I had seen death before. Ojoa had taken me to the slaughterhouse to watch cattle being processed, and when Matar had a stillbirth, Val had allowed me to clean and wrap the baby so Matar could hold them.
At the hospital, I nursed patients who were close to death, because if they were unconscious I couldn’t frighten them. The virus took weeks to kill, and it was difficult to predict fatalities. I had to care for these patients as if I could save their lives.
Usually, I did not save their lives.
Dr. Leng said I was remarkable. “He never gets tired,” she told the other doctors. (I decided I didn’t care enough about pronouns to correct her.) “No errors, none.”
It was easy to ignore the fifty-hour work schedule that Ojoa had negotiated for me. I needed to recharge my power reserves each night, but I had discovered that a full sleep cycle wasn’t necessary for my cognitive algorithms to process the day’s memories. I decided to work as many hours as I could. If I took time off, another nurse would be assigned extra shifts, clad head to toe in protective gear, and if that nurse got infected and died it would be my fault.
A patient asked to see me after her recovery. On a handheld, she showed me an image of her child, sweet-faced, a puff of black hair and half-moon eyes like Ojoa’s.
The patient squeezed my hand. It was the first time at the hospital that someone had touched me on purpose. She told me I was a miracle from God. We looked at each other, and I wondered if this feeling was what people meant when they said God, like I was seeing into her mind and she was seeing into mine.
Two weeks later, I entered the critical care ward and saw her, gray-skinned, unconscious.
“It was the daughter,” Dr. Leng told me. “Asymptomatic and tested negative. Reinfected the patient as soon as she went home.” She exhaled. “It happens.”
“Mare,” Ojoa said over the handheld, a few nights after that, “you’re not making sense. Have you been sleeping?”
I found I couldn’t remember.
The next morning, I stood in the gray light outside the hospital. Dhuliwa got out of the car. He moved like an older man, and I understood he’d driven all night to come here. He brought me to an apartment. There were sunflowers in a vase, and an orange cat drowsed by the window.
We entered a sunny bedroom. Dhuliwa tried to leave the room, but I grabbed his arm.
“Oh kid,” Dhuliwa said. And he lay beside me on top of the blanket, and held me until I fell asleep.
At first I thought Ojoa was avoiding me because she was disappointed with me. I had gone to First City to save lives, and I had failed.
Then I caught sight of her sitting under the gum tree beside the lab window, stiff, staring into the distance, and I understood that it wasn’t me she was disappointed with.
Aigrette came and sat beside me on my sleeping platform, arms around me, long hair falling over my shoulders. There were five of us now—Capella, Geminate, and Root had joined Aigrette and me—but Aigrette and I were still close in a way I would never be with the others.
Aigrette made me tell about the way the hospital staff had treated me, how they had misgendered me, how I had agreed to extra shifts. I won’t let them do that to me. You didn’t take care of yourself, Mare.
The next morning, I found Ojoa drinking tea and reading something on her handheld. She looked thinner than I remembered, her round cheeks flat and colorless.
I sat and put a hand on top of hers. “It won’t be like that for the others,” I said. “You always tell me that I’m too empathetic.”
Ojoa set down her handheld. Her bright eyes didn’t meet mine. “You shouldn’t have been there alone. I’m requesting funding for a liaison. Someone who can advocate on behalf of Artificial workers.”
“It wasn’t Dr. Leng’s fault. I chose to take the extra shifts. I chose to ignore my emotional distress.”
She met my gaze then. “None of you have to work in medical care,” she said firmly. “It’s always been your decision. You always have a home here.”
“I know.” I twisted my hand to grasp hers, palm to palm. “I’m glad I’m home.”
Ojoa made a sound like she was holding back a sob. She wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry I didn’t call more. Hari said I should give you some independence. I think I drove everyone crazy, worrying what was happening with you.”
“I was so homesick that I rewatched the first ten series of Celestial Vassals,” I admitted. “Even the one with the space slugs.”
“Wow.” She found a smile. “That’s pretty sad, Mare.”
“I knew I should explore the city, but I only missed home. I didn’t care about seeing new places.”
“Honestly?” Ojoa took a swig of her tea. “It’s a shit colony capital. You didn’t miss anything.” She shrugged. “I prefer it out here with the cows.”
Eight months later, Aigrette and Capella left Matora Facility in the company of our new liaison, Susu Arvare. Susu had been fired from her position in the Office of Justice for her political activism. She was kind and serious, with a halo of tightly coiled hair and more piercings than I had seen before on a single person.
Dhuliwa and Ojoa had scraped together the funding to hire Susu, both as a liaison and to handle public relations. Susu spent a lot of time writing feed stories and policy papers, proposing a legal framework for Artificial personhood. She asked me to write, too, but I couldn’t see the point of advocating for rights I already had under Ojoa’s care. I didn’t think Susu liked me very much.
Aigrette and Capella did well at the hospital. At first they called home every night, but Susu had friends in First City, and soon they were going to open-air social events, street markets, recreational areas outside the city.
Most humans here don’t think we’re people, Aigrette told me. Still, they’re so interesting. Different ages and genders, and different kinds of families, and different work and different lives. Susu has a friend who works in aquaculture. He has a mustache and he likes this off-world music, it’s called jaku, folk songs with electric instruments. I wish you were here. You’d like it so much.
But I was content.
“You should see it,” Dhuliwa said quietly.
He and Ojoa were in bed together, talking about the new Artificial dormitory in First City. I knew it was wrong to eavesdrop, but it wasn’t my fault the facility walls were thin, or that Ojoa’s personal quarters were next to our lab, or that, when Dhuliwa visited, they went to bed at unexpected times of day.
“They’ve painted murals,” Dhuliwa continued, “they’ve got the fabrication lab—and not just for repairs and upgrades. Coil has been building musical instruments.”
“Susu’s given me a virtual tour,” Ojoa said, yawning. “It sounds great.”
There was a silence. I verified that the batch of neural scans was converting properly, and wondered what was passing between them.
“I’ve got six more days of leave,” Dhuliwa said finally. “We could go tomorrow.”
“Hari. I can’t go to First City.”
“It’s a house full of androids. You’re not going to get sick.”
“It’s not practical.”
Dhuliwa’s voice was a caress. “I worry about you here. What are you going to do when the Artificials take over the accession process?”
“I don’t know.” I heard her shift in the bed. “Maybe Brinsen will let me join his team.”
Dhuliwa’s exclamation of disbelief made Ojoa laugh. “Seriously, though. What about Mare? You’ve told me they don’t really socialize with the new accessions.”
“I don’t know. I’ve asked them if they want to try living in First City again, but it goes nowhere. And Val is getting older. Mare has such a good rapport with patients.”
“And who’s going to pay Mare to be a doctor here? At least in First City the hospital pays funds into the trust account.”
“I don’t know what you want me to do. Mare gets to decide what they want.”
“If you left, Mare would leave too. You’re what’s keeping them here.”
Ojoa said nothing.
The next morning, I went into Ojoa’s bedroom and stole Dhuliwa’s shoelaces. It had been years since I’d executed a prank. He didn’t mention the missing shoelaces to anyone, but I was pretty sure he knew it was me.
“I love you, kid,” he said that afternoon, slinging an arm around me as I worked in the lab on accession prep. “You know that?”
I didn’t answer, but I leaned into the warmth of his chest.
Aigrette was in love.
You can’t be in love, I told her. We don’t fall in love.
She’d sent me a picture of her boyfriend. He had curly brown hair and the most freckled face I’d ever seen. Aigrette said he was twenty, practically a child. In fairness, Aigrette had only existed for eleven years—but Aigrette had never been a human child.
Of course we can fall in love, she said. I care about him. I like everything about him and want to be around him. That’s love, isn’t it?
Aigrette had met the boy, Kalin, at one of Susu’s parties. Kalin worked for the Housing Bureau, but he was also a well-known poet. I didn’t understand how anyone could be a well-known poet at twenty. Possibly our colony had a poet shortage.
I wasn’t going to ask about sex, but she told me anyway. We’re already experimenting with it. We’re working out the neural architecture, and Dhuliwa is helping us with hardware. When Ojoa made us, she had no right to deprive us of sexuality.
I could think of a number of reasons Ojoa hadn’t given us sex drives. Sex and romance weren’t integral to the human experience. Sexuality might increase the physical dysphoria that some of us already felt. We might not feel attracted to other Artificials, and between Artificials and humans there were questions of power, of consent.
Is it something you want? I asked her. Or are you changing yourself for Kalin?
She sent me the equivalent of a shrug. I’ve always been curious. If I don’t like it, I can go back to how I was before.
Afterward I went to sit beneath the gum tree. Aigrette hadn’t asked me if I wanted the upgrade, if you could call it that. I was pretty sure I wasn’t interested. If I wanted to experience euphoric pleasure, I could try one of the mods they’d developed in First City, though Root said those were more like the human experience of taking an illicit drug. The rest of it—desire, the involvement of another person—just sounded embarrassing.
I thought of the people I loved most and imagined promising myself to them the way Aigrette wanted to promise herself to the boy with the brown curls. I imagined standing up in front of the facility and telling everyone we belonged to each other.
Ojoa and I never talked about love. I had never heard Ojoa say “I love you” to anyone, not even Dhuliwa. Instead she hugged me and told me, “You’re wonderful.” And I would rest my cheek against her temple and say it back to her.
“Has Aigrette talked to you?” I asked Ojoa the next morning in the lab.
Ojoa sighed. She looked tired. “Yes. I’m figuring it out with Dhuliwa and Susu. I’m really pissed, actually. They’ve both known about this for weeks.” She stepped into the alcove and began to make tea. “Aigrette has always done things her own way, hasn’t she?”
She was standing with her back facing me, as if we were making casual conversation, as if Aigrette’s choices had nothing to do with me.
I told myself this was probably for the best.
Ojoa was elevated on the surgical bed, an outstretched arm hooked up to the infusion pump. With her free hand she flipped through stories on her handheld, not lingering on any of them. She was always edgy during treatments.
“No patients today?” she asked, watching me stack instruments in the autoclave.
Since Ojoa’s lymphoma diagnosis, I’d begun rearranging my schedule so that I could stay with her during treatments. “I need to clean, then review some charts,” I said. “I hope you don’t mind.”
She made a noise that was at once amused and skeptical. “Okay, then.”
I finished loading the autoclave and scrubbed down the examination room. Then I sat beside her and connected to the patient database. Medicine, I’d learned, was not something that could be automated. Krenzben wouldn’t show up to her appointments unless I scheduled a reminder to stop by her office beforehand and chat about the facility badminton game. Pak was still refusing hypertension medication, so I made a note to discuss lifestyle interventions.
Ojoa’s voice broke into my thoughts. “Oh fuck,” she exclaimed. “Oh fuck, Mare. And it’s not him …”
At the same moment, seventy-eight contacts pinged my consciousness. I dismissed everyone but Aigrette.
Aigrette sent me a greeting like an embrace, accompanied by a link to an off-world research paper. I knew the lab, one of the research moons orbiting Theta Colony, nearly a hundred light-years from our own world.
They had discovered an effective treatment for our virus.
It was only a research paper. But I was familiar with the lead author, a correspondent of Ojoa. Dr. Santil had spent years working with simulations of the pathogen; she would not have published lightly, knowing what her results meant for our colony.
Tears brightened Ojoa’s eyes, but she was smiling. “Brinsen is going to be furious. That poor man, his legacy’s been stolen …”
“That’s what you’re thinking about?”
Ojoa grinned helplessly. “Come here.”
I sat on the edge of the surgical bed, and Ojoa slipped her arm around my waist, pulling me close. “You didn’t attend the Deep Learning Symposium last year. Brinsen interrupted Santil’s presentation about twenty times with questions that were just excuses to talk about his own research. They despise each other.”
I decided I didn’t understand academics. “Things will go back to normal.”
“It will be years,” Ojoa said absently. “Let me enjoy this, all right?”
She rested her cheek against my shoulder. “You know, someday you won’t have to be medics,” she said quietly. “You can be whatever you want to be.”
Ojoa was anxious during the drive to First City. She couldn’t settle on music, insisted on driving manually after goats wandered into the road, though we both knew the autonomous system was safer.
Aigrette lived in a residential neighborhood, identical buildings with awnings faded by the sun. She greeted us at the door to her flat, wearing a dress patterned with red flowers. We both received hugs, but it was Ojoa she held for a long time.
I studied Aigrette’s face, and when she saw me looking, her eyes crinkled with pleasure. I look good, don’t I?
You know you do. Aigrette would never be mistaken for human, but with the newest hardware, it was startling how close the resemblance came.
She led us inside. “This is Ojoa and Mare,” she told a sulky-looking teenage boy sprawled on the couch. “Ojoa, Mare, this is Lexan.”
Lexan greeted us monosyllabically. He resembled his older brother, though his curls were dark red and looked like they could use a wash. Like Aigrette, he was grieving. His brother, Aigrette’s lover, had died three weeks before the first antiviral treatments had become available.
All evening, Aigrette hovered around Ojoa—settling an arm around her shoulders, adjusting a silver ornament in her silver hair. She’d taught herself to cook for Lexan during Kalin’s illness, and now she made Ojoa’s favorite fish stew for dinner. We sat at the table as the others ate, enjoying the fragrances of paprika and tamarind.
I didn’t expect her to look so old, Aigrette said afterward, sliding on protective gloves to scrub a pot.
Fifty-seven isn’t old. You wouldn’t be acting this way if you’d seen her when she was really ill.
Stop it. You know I wanted to come. I would come home now, but I can’t leave Lexan. He has no one.
I didn’t have words to answer Aigrette’s grief. Though we’d communicated often in the months after Kalin’s death, I had little to offer beyond the comfort of my attention.
At least that word home filled me with reassurance. Whoever Aigrette loved, however far she drifted from me, we were still her home.
Ojoa and I had come to First City to participate in a hearing on Artificial personhood. Ojoa was testifying as a key witness, but I was testifying as evidence.
A pair of bureaucrats greeted us at Concordance Hall. I was brought to a room without windows, where Dr. Brinsen and a legal observer were waiting.
As an expert witness, Dr. Brinsen had been asked to “examine” me. He wasn’t, in fact, an expert on Artificial intelligence; he wasn’t even a neutral party. He had cosigned the public statement that had appeared in The Current, the most popular Interstellar feed.
The Interstellar community has saved Phi Colony, it read. Now it’s time for Phi to give something back. Artificials were intellectual property, and according to people like Dr. Brinsen, we belonged to the colony, or to humanity—to anyone but ourselves.
Dr. Brinsen’s questions were like barbed wire, designed to keep me within bounds. He made the legal observer laugh when I admitted to helping Ojoa with her quilting. “Surely you don’t do that for enjoyment. It’s a series of algorithms, a manufacturing robot could do it.”
I kept my voice modulated. “Dr. Brinsen, you build toy models of antique space vessels. You rely on procedural memory to complete them. Don’t you do that for enjoyment?” I made eye contact with the legal observer, because Dr. Brinsen was obviously a lost cause. “I am not a series of algorithms. I am an embodied person, and I like to quilt.”
“Dr. Brinsen,” the legal observer said, “I wonder if you could ask Mare about their time working in a hospital. I know Hari Dhuliwa considers this incident a milestone in our understanding of Artificial cognition.”
“Thank you, I was getting to that,” Dr. Brinsen said. “Mare spent seven months serving as a nurse in First City. It was their first, and only, time living independently.” He looked at me. “You failed to acclimate. The unfamiliar environment was too difficult for you.”
Barbed strands encircled me. “I found the work challenging.”
“They’re the same tasks you complete at Matora Facility, correct? You provide medical care.”
“In First City, I nursed outbreak patients,” I said. “It was extremely stressful.”
“Yet you’ve seen a number of deaths and terminal diagnoses since you became the primary medical provider at Matora. Nira Ojoa, I believe, is one of them.”
I knew I was supposed to answer smoothly and correctly, but every possible response was a grating sound, a noxious scent. I wished we were back at the facility so that I could fill his bed with spider eggs.
“Terminal is a mischaracterization of Dr. Ojoa’s condition,” I forced myself to say. “It’s incurable, true, but with proper care she has a decade or more of good health ahead of her.”
“How would you characterize your relationship with Nira Ojoa?”
“She is a colleague,” I said, selecting my words with unusual care, “and a mentor. When I was young, I considered her a caregiver, but now I prefer to call her a friend.”
“I see. So you were able to care for your creator, who has an incurable illness, but you were not able to care for outbreak patients. One of the things we are trying to understand,” he said, addressing the legal observer, “is whether Artificials have general intelligence. As impressive as Mare is, they appear to thrive in a fixed environment under the guidance of a single human personality. For Mare’s peers, Susu Arvare is this personality, and her supervision allows them to function in a more complex hospital environment. Mare, however, functions best within the confines of Matora Facility, and in the service of Nira Ojoa.”
He met my gaze then, a challenge that I couldn’t answer.
“The complex behavior displayed by Artificials may more accurately be characterized as a reproduction of their social context,” Ojoa read aloud from her handheld. “Their apparent consciousness is a mirror of our own—an echo, a trick of the light.” She sighed. “He won’t give it up, will he?”
I lifted a colorful quilt from the paperboard box. Ojoa shifted so that I could spread it over the back of the drab municipal-issue couch, which complemented our drab municipal-issue townhouse. The farming community where I’d been assigned as doctor was prairie-flat and austere in aspect, but the scent of grassland and lowing of cattle made it feel like home.
Ojoa had already set the wall screens to pictures of our friends. Dhuliwa and Susu Arvare in an embrace. Aigrette and Lexan, then Aigrette with an Artificial lover (I didn’t call up the name; she had so many lovers these days). Ojoa seemed to find comfort in these images of the people who cared for us, even if they were all furious we’d refused their invitation to relocate to First City.
Susu said the political situation made it necessary for us to join together, but I didn’t see the urgency. Nothing had changed; even as the colony-appointed judiciary had recognized our personhood, the Interstellar Union had placed a fifty-year moratorium on enforcement of the decision. Or so I understood. I avoided the Interstellar feeds these days.
Our townhouse looked out on grazed prairie; now sunset smoldered at the horizon, saffron red and sheaf yellow. I felt excited to settle into our new community and the home we were sharing, but a sadness was tugging at me, like a young person clinging to my sleeve.
Since Dr. Brinsen had begun litigating Artificial personhood in the feeds, I’d developed the maladaptive habit of second-guessing myself. I knew that Ojoa preferred the quiet countryside to city life, that our happiness was mutually interdependent. But what if my intelligence had failed, what if I couldn’t be trusted to choose?
“Are you happy we moved here?” I asked her.
Ojoa frowned. “Come here,” she said, setting down her handheld.
I sat beside her. Ojoa took the quilt and spread it over both our shoulders, bundling us together. I liked the feel of the fabric against my skin.
Ojoa leaned against me. She was slim these days—I tried not to think frail. “Maybe we should declare a new rule for a new house. No legal talk. I know I get wrapped up in this stuff.”
“I worry that we made a mistake,” I said rapidly. “Susu says the others need you.”
“They don’t. They don’t even need Susu. And if anyone really wants to see us, we’re in Seventh Province, not another planetary system.” She pressed a thin hand over mine. “You’ve been really hard to read, the last few months. You could have talked to me about this before.”
“It’s hard to talk to you about things sometimes,” I admitted.
I glanced over. Ojoa was studying the pattern of the quilt, a bright spiral of interlocking diamonds.
“What is it that you can’t talk to me about?” she asked finally.
What if he’s right? What if I’m only a mirror?
It was distorted thinking; it wasn’t true. It wasn’t even what I was most afraid of.
I closed myself off to sight or sound; I spoke the words, though I couldn’t hear them. “What,” I said, “if I love other people more than they love me?”
When I returned, her dark eyes were tracing the contours of my face like they’d found a fault, like I was young again and she’d discovered an error in my code.
“That’s not why you’re here?” she asked slowly. “If you’re, I don’t know, running away, because you don’t feel like you fit in—”
“Not them!” I exclaimed. “I love you, and you’ve never told me you feel the same, sometimes it’s like you don’t feel anything, like you’re the machine!”
Her mouth opened like she was going to laugh, even as her eyes became very bright. The words had felt right when I’d chosen them, but I’d gone too far.
“Well, now you know why Hari left me,” she said, not looking at me.
I pulled my hand away. “I didn’t mean to be hurtful.”
“No.” Ojoa was blinking rapidly. She lifted a hand and wiped her eyes. “No, I … find it very painful that there are no words to describe what you are to me.”
She was looking at me like I was a puzzle she was trying to solve. With great care, she lifted a hand and pressed it to my cheek. I leaned in to her touch.
When she spoke, it was haltingly. “Neither of us quite fit, do we? I used to be so afraid, Mare. That I’d spent my life trying to make this world a good place for you to live, and that you—” She exhaled. “We could never let each other go. And now I need to know that you’ll be all right without me.”
I was trying to become a truthful person, so I told her the only thing I knew to say.
“I’m all right now,” I said. “And I wouldn’t have done any of it differently.”
I twisted to press a kiss against her palm, and she let me.
Editor: Hebe Stanton
First Reader: Hebe Stanton
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors