June 24th 2022
Initialization sequence complete.
Three lifeforms present. Two adult humans, one juvenile.
Detecting fundamental auditory frequencies of 165 Hz. Run speech recognition protocols.
“I wanted a real dog, Mommy. Not a dumb robot.”
“Don’t be silly, Lucy. People don’t keep endangered species as pets. Besides, you couldn’t take a real dog on the transport to Alpha Cyphron.”
“I don’t want to move. Earth 12 is where all my friends are.” The juvenile’s face scrunches.
Searching databanks for a facial expression catalogue. Pouting.
Initialize response: whining, nose bopping. Auditory reaction from juvenile corresponds to giggling.
“Ok, ok. I’ll call you Antares.”
The adults exchange a look. “Only you would name it after a dead star.”
“Let’s go, robo-dog. I’ll show you my room. You can help me pack.”
Run loyalty program. Focus on juvenile human. Identifier: Lucy.
A voice comes over the loudspeaker, tinny but human. “All passengers prepare to Jump.”
Lucy’s hand tightens on the armrest and her face grows pale.
Antares drops a titanium paw in her lap. “The probability of getting lost in a wormhole during a Jump is less than one seventy-eighth of a percent. You’re more likely to develop Oxygen oversaturation on Alpha Cyphron, as the atmosphere is richer than what you are acclimated to.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better.”
Antares initiates program Puppy Dog Eyes and taps her thigh. “You can grasp my appendage, if you desire.”
One by one, Lucy peels her fingers from the armrest. She glances at her parents, both asleep in their seats. On the other side of the aisle, an older man watches something on a pair of hologlasses.
Antares runs diagnostics. “Adults all exhibit respiration and pulse rates within normal parameters.”
A wrinkle appears on Lucy’s forehead, and she tilts her head to the side.
Antares mimics her, then reboots its communication setting. “They’re not worried. Everything is going to be ok.”
The girl reaches out and clutches its paw, squishing its silicon toe beans. The sensation is agreeable. Its tail wags in response. The unscripted reaction is––it searches its emotional database––surprising.
Filing the data, it redirects. “Look out the viewport, Lucy.” Stars flicker, red giants, white dwarfs, hot blues, and nebulous gas clouds. Their pinpricks of light turn to a rainbow of streaks as the transport Jumps.
The subtext does not match the words.
“You’ll love Alpha Cyphron.”
Antares scours its cultural indexes. Humans make pledges they cannot possibly know if they can keep.
The apartment door swishes open. “Antares!”
He stretches and trots to the front hallway. “How were classes today? Learn anything interesting?”
Lucy reaches down and strokes the cool metal on his haunches. “You sound like my parents.”
Antares huffs. She grins and tickles his ears. “No offense, doodle-bug.”
She shrugs out of her coat and tosses her purse on the table. Bustling into the kitchen, she starts dinner, humming out of tune. His custom “Lucy’s mannerisms” catalogue indicates happiness.
A bit of synthetic protein falls to the floor.
He takes the cue and pretends to gobble it up. Later, when her back is turned, he’ll pop it in the recycler. Over the cycles he’s learned she loves the pretense. Her desire is his duty. Maybe she’s even fooled herself into believing he’s real. He dismisses the thought, ignoring the flush of pleasure. Personal affectations are not part of his programming.
Lucy plops to the kitchen floor, ignoring the protein and string-pods simmering in the skillet. Antares snuggles into her lap, licking her ears. She giggles, just like when she was a girl. The pleasurable sensation grows.
She throws her arms around his neck and whispers theatrically in his ear. “I have a secret, my sweet pupper-ooni.” She practically vibrates. “I met a guy. His name is Damon.”
Her buzz is contagious, and he yips in excitement. “Details! I want all the dirt.” Human idioms are strange, but the bizarre vernacular has become familiar, for his model includes cutting edge AI learning systems.
He nudges her, pleased she’ll always share her secrets with him.
Lucy looked celestial in her white dress. She bent to straighten Antares’ bowtie.
“My handsome Best Man.” Her breath caught in her throat, and she dashed a tear away.
He leaned against her legs. It was supposed to be the happiest day of her life.
She sighed, as if she had heard the thought. “I just wish Mom and Dad were here.”
Antares whined. The probability of Oxygen Toxicity had been so low. Someone had to be on the bottom end of the statistics, but their deaths had felt like a mathematical betrayal.
“Maybe you can convince Damon to move? You loved living on Earth 12.”
Lucy frowned. “I’m not having this conversation again. His work is here. I need you to support me.”
A strange feeling swept over him and for the first time in a dozen cycles he accessed his emotional databases. Guilt. His tail drooped between his legs, and he buried his nose in her hair.
Machines beeped in an arrhythmic pattern. Damon sat in a corner, his clothes disheveled and dark circles under his eyes. When had the man last slept? It wasn’t important. Only Lucy mattered.
Her hair, still vibrant auburn, spread like a cloud against the antiseptic white pillowcase. A muscle in her face twitched, a precursor to a coughing fit that left her breathless. Her hands balled in the sheets. A medical auto-attendant hovered overhead, but there was nothing left to do.
I nudged Lucy with my nose.
Breathe. A basic executable.
Images of the skeptical child, the willful teen, the hopeful bride, a lifetime best friend, superimposed themselves over the wasted form in the hospital bed. She’d turned old before her time from the disease. It was hard to reconcile. She should have convinced her idiot husband to relocate. This was his fault.
Her chest heaved. Stilled.
Duty and purpose dissolved into the void.
I threw back my head and howled.
Author Bio: MM Schreier is a classically trained vocalist who took up writing as therapy for a mid-life crisis. Whether contemporary or speculative fiction, favorite stories are rich in sensory details and weird twists. A firm believer that people are not always exclusively right- or left-brained, in addition to creative pursuits Schreier manages a robotics company and tutors maths and science to at-risk youth.
Recent publications can be found in The Molotov Cocktail, MetaStellar, and Curiosities. Additional listings can be found at: mmschreier.com/publications
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