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1.

APRIL, 2088 - Before Imprint 

"I'm not sure which is worse: intense feeling or the absence of it."  

– Margaret Atwood 


 SYNTH·O·PAL 

/sin’THəˈpal/ 

noun 

noun: synth-o-pal; plural noun: synth-o-pals, pals; noun: Synth-O-Pal 

  1. A simulacrum, or bio-synthetic android virtually identical to a living human being. 
  2. A commercially available robot built with a human appearance, superior strength, agility, durability and intelligence (depending on the model). 
  3. An artificially crafted organism sold in a variety of different model types, including domestic and wild animals, exotic and extinct animals, fantasy creatures, soft toys for children, and human-shaped sexual-companions and medical-caretakers for adults.   

synonyms: robot, automaton, droid, bot 

 “They gave her a medical caretaker Synth-O-Pal” 


[Donna Travis, sometimes called Dee by her peers, lays alone in her mind – a trim, petite woman of about thirty with a grim face and hard, dark eyes.  Right now those eyes are lost in recollection. Trapped in a memory they can't escape.

Dee Travis remembers the desert stretched out before her like an endless ocean of sand, wide and milky-gray beneath the pale dawn. The canyon cliffs stand tall and foreboding at its edge, casting long, jagged shadows across the rolling dunes. The sky above her is gun-metal gray.

She remembers the dusty desert road and the thunder-crack of gunfire, close enough to deafen her. She remembers the heat from the burning jeep, remembers watching the crumpled ruin of the bonnet gape like the twisted mouth of a metal crocodile. Remembers boots hitting the dirt. Soldiers running. The ground shaking and flecks of sand exploding. She remembers Bennet slumped by the jeep and Alexa bent over the 50-caliber machine gun, laying down a level arc of suppressing fire. The spray of bullets over the dunes so abrupt and terrifying that it's almost hypnotic.  

Air slams. 

She has her weapon pointed at the ground. 

Air slams and Bennet drops. She remembers him twitching on the ground between her and the jeep. Smaller twitches now. He's bleeding out. She remembers scuttling to him, low behind the jeep with her helmet still on. She remembers getting pressure on his wound. It’s a futile gesture but she’s stubborn and she does it anyway. She has her weapon pointed at the ground and then there’s the smell of smoke and the bitter coppery taste. The sudden sharp pain. The warm wet feeling of something (What? What?) spreading under her uniform at the small space between the Kevlar pads (What are the odds huh?).  

She remembers blood spreading. Blotting the fabric. Turning the green patches black.  

A voice yelling just beforehand. Alexa’s voice. Saying her name over and over. 

“Travis! Travis! Dee! Get the fuck down! I said get the fuck–” 

Massive explosion. Ringing in her ears. Smoke billowing everywhere. Fire and chaos and she remembers sitting down somehow with a terrible stinging in her shoulder and the breath driven out of her.  

She remembers everything.] 

 

Dee first met Andy in the spring of 2088, in the Veterans Hospital in Brooklyn, NY.  

Her room was a modern, functional structure. An institutional-looking place of steel and chrome and industrial carpet. Darkly lit, small, sterile, and quiet, aside from the heart monitor. Although sometimes it seemed to have its own soft pulse – the hiss and sigh of the air conditioning. The temperature, regulated at all times, never went above 65c. Laying there alone in the elevated bed, listening to nothing but the droning hum of the fluorescent lights and the constant electric beep of the heart monitor, Private Dee Travis found that all she could do was think, and remember.

Dim, brittle light and the cloying stink of antiseptic and bleach. 

On the wall at the foot of the automated medical bed there was a large digital clock with numbers big and bright enough to read through the sedatives and the pain. Dee read them over and over. Focusing. Trying not to think. Trying not to remember.  

The changing of the numbers on the clock assured her that this was passing, would pass.   

Pass into what, though?  

She didn’t know. 

The numbers kept changing. Dee listened to the sound of her own rhythmic breaths, sighing on every exhale. A wheezy addition to the air conditioning blasts and the heart monitor beeps. She thought about what happened and felt desperate, miserable sadness. Sadness so intense at first she thought she would burst from it – like a balloon too full of air to stay whole. But then a tall figure came into the room through the frosted glass double doors. He was as muscular as a stag and dressed in the standard blues of a hospital nurse. The lower half of his face was obscured by a surgical mask, but his eyes – large and green – were still visible. Dee thought they looked oddly bright in the dark room. 

A seating area in the corner by the bed was severely lit from above by a stark fluorescent lamp. 

"Good afternoon, Private Travis,” the nurse said into the darkness, the overhead light hot on the top of his head. His voice was a serene rasp – flat and utterly devoid of inflection.  

“Morning,” said Dee. 

“How are you feeling today?” 

“I feel –" She groped for the sadness, found numbness, now empty indifference. "I feel fine," she said remotely. 

The nurse took a minute to fiddle with the knobs of the heart monitor and check the saline level in her IV drip. Then he said “How’s your shoulder?” 

Dee wiggled a little under the sling, felt stiffness but no pain. The analgesics she had been given were very strong. 

“Shoulder's good," she replied. 

A small, sharp nod from the nurse. “Because of the nature of the events that lead to your injury, it’s been requested that I perform a psychological scan on you.” 

Dee frowned. “Do you have to?" 

“I’m afraid it’s procedure.” 

“Figures.”  

To her surprise, the nurse apologized. Not a mumbled apology, but a full-eye-contact, sunken-shouldered “Sorry”. 

Dee shrugged. "No problem. Just do what you gotta do, big guy." 

The nurse produced a pair of sleek Augmedix spectacles and a long white device that looked like a cross between a spatula and a remote-control. He approached the bed.  

“Have you ever had a psychological scan before, Private Travis?” 

“Once, during basic training,” said Dee. 

“You understand, the method’s been updated since then," the nurse informed her, sitting down by the bed. "It may be different to what you remember.” 

Dee nodded briskly. Just get on with it. 

The glasses were placed carefully on her face, with both lenses projecting an image of static steadily into her eyes. She squinted, but didn’t blink. She was calm.  

Seated where he could catch the readings on the two gauges of the Augmedix testing apparatus, the nurse said, “You’ll be shown a number of images in a moment. These images are meant to elicit an emotional response from you. Please do not attempt to curb your responses. The goal is to capture an accurate reading. Do you understand?” 

Dee nodded fixedly, and felt the glasses slip down the bridge of her nose. The nurse reached out mechanically and pushed them back into place. Dee thought his hand smelled like disinfectant and dry wax. 

“We’ll begin now,” said the nurse in a low, analytical voice. 

Dee was shown a variety of pictures, each one remaining on the lenses for less than a second before flickering over to the next. The order was jumbled and severe. Dog, butterfly, cow, baby, mother, her mother, assault rifle, Alexa, fire, cadaver, roadkill, her father, Bennet, livestock, the rest of her platoon, beef steak, a pair of lovers copulating, her drill sergeant, a mass of buildings on fire, a clump of trees on fire, the moon, a jeep, a bird taking flight, a dinosaur jumping. 

By the time the nurse took the glasses away, Dee's head was spinning. 

“How do you feel, Private Travis?” Asked the nurse. 

“Dizzy,” said Dee. 

“Sorry."  

That apology again – so sincere it seemed almost out of place coming from him. 

"The dizziness is a common side-effect of the new scan," the nurse continued. "It should pass shortly.” He pocketed the glasses and stood up. "I'll leave you to rest now. Feel better."  

He got as far as the door before Dee called after him. 

"Wait." 

In the doorway he stopped and looked back at her. Again, his green eyes seemed to shine.  

"What were the results?" Asked Dee. "Of the test, I mean." 

"I'm afraid we won't know for another twenty-four hours," the nurse told her. 

"Fair enough. What happens now?" 

"That's to be determined. At the moment, we’ve got you scheduled for one month of physical therapy. You should recover well. After that, you'll be discharged, and then debriefed – from what I understand." 

"Will I be decommissioned?" 

"It's possible." 

"And if your scan comes back saying I'm crazy? Then what?" 

"Do you feel crazy, Private Travis?" 

"Just answer the question." 

"Any number of things could happen if the scan-results put you on the negative end of the spectrum." 

"Such as?" 

"You could be placed on temporary medication. You could be scheduled for mandatory meetings with a counselor. You could be paired with a service companion." 

"Service companion? You mean, like, an emotional support dog or something?" 

"I mean a caretaker model Synth-O-Pal." 

"Like, one of those robot things?" 

The nurse nodded. 

Stunned, Dee laughed. "You're joking." 

There was a faint flicker of tension behind her laughter. The nurse seemed to pick up on it. 

"I wouldn't worry about it right now, if I were you," he said softly. "Everything will be fine." 

"And if it isn't?" 

"Relax. You're in good hands. Just rest, and focus on getting well again." 

Indignation bloomed in her. "But what if I don't want some damn service companion robot, huh?" 

The nurse gave no answer. Dee couldn't be sure from the mask, but she thought she saw a smile touch his strange, luminous eyes before he left. 

 


[She sleeps on and off throughout the day, and in her dreams she remembers being on the ground. Panting, wheezing. Her shoulder steadily throbbing and her right arm limp. She remembers the sun beating down on her face, unbearably dry forever and ever. No breeze. Just searing, burning heat, magnified by the greenhouse shield of the Terraforming Dome. 

She sleeps and remembers twisting in the sand, groaning in the sand, scooping grains of sand between her clenching fingers and then shifting slightly on the ground. She remembers feeling weighted down, feeling almost completely buried beneath a small mound of heavy sand. She remembers the weight of the Kevlar exojacket – powered, tight-fitting, bristling with ammunition. Body armor designed for off-world combat, useless now, like her arm. She remembers an endless sea of sand stretching out around her in every direction, all the way to the horizon and beyond. No identifying landmarks. No grass, no rocks, no leafless trees. No sign of water, not even a dry riverbed.  

The sun, gradually sinking lower. Afternoon passing into early evening.]

 

The nurse came again the following day.  

"Good morning, Private Travis," he said as he swept briskly into the room. Like before, his voice was flat and emotionless.  

"Hi," said Dee from the bed. 

The nurse bent briefly to take her temperature – the round tip of the thermometer felt cool against her forehead – and then proceeded to check the readout on the heart monitor, and change the saline bag on her IV drip. 

"How come you wear that mask around me?" Dee asked as he fiddled with the saline bag. 

The nurse glanced at her, his bright eyes questioning above the gauze surgical mask. 

"Afraid you'll catch something? This –" Dee jerked her shoulder for him, "–isn't contagious, you know."  

"I know," said the nurse. "It's hospital policy." 

"Ah." 

Some silence. 

"Any news about my psyche scan?" Dee asked tentatively.  

"Yes. I've been told to perform a follow-up test. A memory-sync, to be specific."  

Dee's brow scrunched anxiously. "What for?" 

"I don't know," said the nurse, in a slightly bored manner.  

Dee read from his posture and tone that this was routine business. Nothing of importance. Nothing to worry about. Still, a memory-sync seemed not only unnecessary, but slightly out of the ordinary to her. Maybe the request came from her superiors, rather than the medical staff. If so, did that mean her superiors intended to compare her memories with the account she would give later, during her debriefing? 

Yes, thought Dee, that makes sense. 

She relaxed. 

When the nurse was finished with the saline bag he went away and returned a few minutes later with a device that looked like a cross between a Walkman and a digital tablet. Attached to one end were a trio of wired adhesive disks, like EKG pads.  

Bending over, the nurse pressed the first adhesive pad of sensitive grids against Dee's wan forehead. 

"Feel okay?" 

"Sure," said Dee. 

The nurse attached the other two disks to Dee's temples, one on each side, and switched on the tablet. 

"Are you comfortable, Private Travis?” 

“I guess so," said Dee. 

“Have you ever had a memory-sync before?" 

"Not that I remember," she joked. 

"It's a fairly simple procedure," said the nurse, monotone. Clearly not amused. He held up the tablet for her to inspect. "This device reads and records electrical patterns in your limbic system, the part of the medial temporal lobe that processes long and short-term memory. It will–" 

“Can that thing see my thoughts?” 

“In a way it can, yes," said the nurse patiently. "It traces your brainwaves and records them here.” He tapped the screen of the tablet. "Do you know how an old film camera takes a photograph? This works similarly. Now, I've set the sync to pull fairly far back in your memory, so–" 

“Can it cause any damage?” 

"We wouldn’t use it, if it could.” 

Dee looked at him doubtfully. "Will it hurt?" 

The nurse’s expressionless face was as close to perplexed as it could get. “Hurt?" 

"You know. Will it hurt?" And she winced for illustration. 

"It shouldn't," the nurse replied in his soft, inexpressive voice. "Though you may hear a small ringing sound when I turn it on. Please try to keep still." 

Dee watched the nurse's long fingers dance across the sleek, glossy plane of the tablet. Then she heard a faint, agreeable sound – like the distant tinkling of wind chimes. 

She started to smile. "Hey, this isn't too b–" 

Slice. She felt a sharp flare of pain in her forehead, behind her nose. She flinched and it was gone. 

"Finished," said the nurse. 

He removed the adhesive disks, said "Thank you for your cooperation," and left. 

Dee looked after him, rubbing her temples. She felt confused and inexplicably sapped of energy.  

 

 

Chapter Text

2.

APRIL, 2088 - Before Imprint 

"You try to tell yourself that you've been lucky, most incredibly lucky, and usually that works  because it's true.

Sometimes it doesn't work, that's all. Then you cry."

-Stephen King


[Dawn in the vast deserts of Mars. 

Donna Travis remembers searching for the outline of the distant canyons, and finding only the same, level line of blinding yellow pressed against the heat-streaked sand. She remembers gathering her strength, pushing herself up on her forearms and partway out of the sand. Her shoulder roiling and the wave of dizziness that came next. She remembers flopping back down in the dirt. Defeated. Delirious with pain. She remembers wondering if she would die alone in the desert. Bleed out surrounded by the bodies of her comrades. The gunfire exploding on all sides and the force of the bullet slamming into her shoulder. Hours ago now.

She remembers the strange sound echoing in the distance. A metallic humming, growing louder, coming closer.] 

 

The digital clock at the foot of the automated medical bed read six o'clock. Dee had no idea which six o'clock. The room was kept perpetually dark. In the end she decided she didn't care, as long as the numbers were ticking.

A thought occurred to her: Just how long have they been ticking, exactly?

Someone was to the side of her. Cautiously she turned her head, expecting to see the big nurse again. Her lasting impression of the nurse had been one of extraordinary stillness, but here there was movement. She was shocked to see her mother looking out one of the tinted hospital windows. A short, round, blue-haired woman with an expression of deep concern on her haggard face.

Dee tried to speak, but a great ache filled her chest on the inhale. She winced – Something's wrong – but her mother took no notice. Her attention was out the window, on something far away.

Noise from the door. Dee jerked her head the other way, felt another flare of unsubdued pain, and saw a tall figure looming there. The big nurse. He was pecking on the door.

“I’m afraid visiting hours are over,  Mrs. Travis,” he said quietly, his eyes bright but flat.

Dee made a noise as her mother left the room. A garbled, barely-audible version of Mom please come back mom please I missed you don't go away. Her chest and shoulder were throbbing, and the cords on her neck were standing out. All she wanted was her mother back. She had to bear down hard to ignore it.

Soft talking from just beyond the door. Dee's mother was saying something in the hallway now. She wasn't sure what. The nurse mumbled in his clipped, mechanical voice, and a long stretch of silence followed. Something was wrong. The pain was rapidly increasing, turning from pins to daggers to burning spears in Dee's chest, overwhelming her mind, dampening her breath. Dee was certain she was going to die.

Let me then just let me–

All at once she saw the nurse’s face over her. She managed to smile back at him, despite the pain.

Help me out here, big guy the smile said. This is beyond excruciating.

The nurse saw that she was looking at him. “Oh. You’re awake.” He stated it like a fact, sounding neither surprised nor annoyed.

Dee's smile evaporated. She tried to nod. Failing that, she pressed him with her gaze.

Help. Me. You giant fuckwit.

The nurse whispered to her from behind his surgical mask – “I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting, Private Travis,” – and mopped the sweat off her forehead with a kleenex. His expression mimicked warmth, but his touch felt cold, impersonal.

Dee groaned when the nurse finally drew away. She felt him pull on her IV line and then heard the faint clink of the saline bag batting against the pole. The pain slipped off her chest and shoulder with unexpected speed, like a loose scarf caught by a gust of wind.

She felt relief. Beautiful, comfortable relief.

She shut her eyes.

Ahhh. Thank you.

She felt sleep tug at her.

No, wait –

She drifted away.


EXCERPT FROM "SYNTH-O-TRONICS TECHNICAL SUPPORT & PRODUCT INQUIRIES" AUTOMATED PHONE DIRECTORY SCRIPT

DATE: April 11

TIME: 3.42pm

 

>> Welcome to Synth-O-Tronics. Your call may be recorded for quality assurance.

>> Hi. I’m an automated system that can handle complete sentences. What Synth-O-Tronics products are you calling about today? 

>> Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Please say the name of the Synth-O-Tronics product you’re calling about, like Synth-O-Pal Perfect Pets™ or Synth-O-Pal Complete Companion™.

>> I think you said Synth-O-Pal Caretaker™? Is that correct?  

>> Great. Now, can you tell me what kind of Synth-O-Pal Caretaker™ it is? A CR-8-7-1960, or a CR-2-9-1981? Or say "It’s a different product".

>> I think you said CR-2-9-1981. Is that correct? 

>> Great. Now, in a few words, tell me what issues you’re having with your Synth-O-Pal Caretaker™ CR-2-9-1981 unit? You can say things like “My Caretaker is malfunctioning”, or “I’d like to setup my Caretaker’s imprinting protocol”.

  • >> Please note: Imprinting protocols are always handled by Synth-O-Tronics professionals. If you wish to set up imprinting preferences in, and then activate, your new Synth-O-Pal pet, companion, or caretaker, you will need to enlist the help of a qualified Synth-O-Tronics technician at your nearest Synth-O-Tronics store.  
  • >> If you have ordered your Synth-O-Pal pet, companion, or caretaker online and had it delivered direct to your place of residence, you may contact your nearest Synth-O-Tronics store and request an Imprinting visit. A Synth-O-Tronics technician will then be sent to your place of residence to activate your Synth-O-Pal pet, companion, or caretaker for no additional fee.

>> Would you like to request an Imprinting visit?

>> Great. Please state your name, full address, and the day and month you’re available. 

>> Okay, I’ve requested an Imprinting visit for Brooklyn Veterans Hospital on Friday, April 27th. A qualified Synth-O-Tronics technician should arrive between the hours of 8am and 11am to help you setup your Synth-O-Pal on that day.

>> Keep in mind that certain Synth-O-Pals require memory-sync uploads in order to perform properly. All Synth-O-Tronics technicians are equipped to carry out medical memory-syncs.

>> Is there anything else I can help you with today?

>> Thank you for calling Synth-O-Tronics. Have a nice day.

>> *Calls Ends*


[Donna Travis remembers the arrival of the quadcopters. A swarm of them swooping out of the dusk-yellow sky, depositing an army of men over a sand-covered hillside. The men fall into columns, like strands of ants. Twenty soldiers at combat readiness, assembled on the edge of the sweltering Martian desert. Dark figures, silhouetted by the setting sun, moving out, storming at her.

She remembers squinting, hearing guns crackle, remembers catching the bursts of light penetrating the darkening sky. The scramble of feet and a sound of heavy boots crunching sand. She remembers watching the calvary platoon huddled close to the ground. Seeing their flashlight beams in the distance, drawing closer, the light darting near the ground where she’s lying and then bursting directly into her eyes.    

She remembers croaking out; “Help. Help me. Someone.”   

One of the medics stooping over her then. Shouting – “Hey, I found one! She’s alive!” – and the shine of the flashlight making rings, like halos, around his helmet. ]

 

The clock said eight when Dee opened her eyes again. Darkness out the windows still. Always. Was it the same day, or the next? She wasn't sure. Her mother was back in the room, watching over her from the chair beside the bed. In one, wrinkled hand she held an expensive-looking get-well-soon card. In the other, an empty styrofoam coffee cup.

“Hello, sweetheart."

Dee was too boughed down by sleep to respond properly.

"It’s me, baby. It’s momma. I’m here.”

Dee licked her lips, clearing away the gluey, foul-tasting film that had stuck them shut. “Wha–"

“Shh, shh, you’re okay.” Scrape of the chair as Mrs. Travis scooter closer to the bed. “You’re okay. You’re back on Earth. You're at the veterans hospital, in Brooklyn." Gently, she took up Dee's hand. "You've been involved in a terrible incident. Do you remember?”

Dee gave a groggy nod. “Mars?”

“That’s right. Oh, baby, it’s a miracle. I saw it on the news before they called me. They had the video footage from the drones, and they were playing it on a loop." Mrs. Travis paused to shudder. "All those awful explosions. I thought – I thought–" Mrs. Travis couldn’t finish. She swallowed hard, took a minute to steady herself, and started again. “You were the only one to make it back, baby. The rest of your platoon–”

“I was lucky," said Dee, tiredly, tonelessly, staring at the bandage on her arm. It was fresh, changed recently. Probably by the big nurse. Probably while she was asleep. (When? When?) It was wound tight around the skin like a thin, flat python.

“What were you even doing all the way out there?” Asked Mrs. Travis. She sounded angry, ready to scold.

“Supply run,” Dee answered dreamily. Still half in the haze, only willing to recount it under the influence. “Actually, we were on our way back to basecamp,” she added, realizing, in a muddled sort of way, that it had been a routine thing. A simple drive from point B back to point A. Something she and the others had done a dozen times before. And that was why nobody had seen it coming. None of her teammates – not a one – had suspected death beyond the next dune because the supply run has been routine, practiced, deemed quantifiably safe. Even now, as she replayed it in her head with the dethatched scrutiny of the deeply-drugged, she could recall no flash of intuition or instinct, no ominous shiver of anticipation that might have counted as a prelude to the ambush.

It had been smooth sailing on considerably calm seas right before that awful storm broke.  

“I was lucky," Dee said again in the same, dull, reflective voice. "The others got wasted, but not me. I survived. I was lucky." Laughing, more surprise than anything. "I am lucky. The rest of them are in the dirt up there but not me, not me, I'm home ha ha." Things she would never have said sober. Things banned from her higher brain. "It could’ve been a lot worse.”

"That's right, you could've lost your arm," Mrs. Travis said somberly. "They operated. On the return flight and again when you got here. You have a –“ She grimaced, “–a cyber-pin in your arm, and another in your chest. Full of little nano-whatsits doing cellular repair. I talked to the doctor about it. You'll be in that cast for a little while and after, you'll go to physical therapy in a sling."

Dee yawned. "I know. One of the nurses –" Come to think of it, had there ever been more than one nurse? "One of the nurses told me. About the therapy, I mean."

Something else there, nagging at her. Something to do with having too little information. Yes, she had wanted to ask the big nurse something. What had she wanted to ask him?

"Hey, mom, you were here before, right? When you talked to the nurse, did he mention anything about my, ummm, my scan results?"

Was that it? I think so. I'm not sure. . .

"Scan results?" Said Mrs. Travis.

"For the, um, you know what. It's fine. Forget about it."

Mrs. Travis' voice cracked slightly. “Does it hurt much, baby?”

"Huh? Does what hurt?"

"Your arm."

Dee shook her head. For the moment she felt no pain – felt nothing whatsoever, even when she saw tears collect at the sides of her mother's eyes.

“I was so worried, Donna. So worried. We all were. Everyone in the building signed this card for you. Even the super."

Indifferent, Dee took the card from her mother and skimmed along the scrawl of signatures lining the inside. She supposed she should have felt appreciative, gladdened, even touched by the love and support the card represented. Instead, she felt a muted measure of guilt rear in her.

I'm lucky, lucky, but no get-well-soon cards for the others, she thought bleakly. Just condolence cards.

Something stabbed behind her nose. The warm, bitter need to cry. She tried to center on it, but no tears came. When she looked back up, she saw her mother’s face crumple for her.

“It’s okay, mom,” said Dee in a voice that held only a modicum of the empathy it should have. She held out her good arm and managed to give her crying mother a stiff but reassuring hug. “Why don't you go home now, mom.”

Mrs. Travis sniffled wetly against Dee's hair where the bandage ended. “I want to stay.”

"You're too tired."

"I'm not."

“Yeah, you are. So am I." It was true, although, really, the last thing she wanted to do was go back to sleep. Too many bad dreams (Memories?) waited for her in the haze of sleep. "Go home, get some shut-eye, mom, and come see me again tomorrow. Okay?"

Mrs. Travis kept clinging. The pressure of the hug was beginning to make Dee's shoulder flare.

"I’m fine. Really, mom. Really." Dee tried to flex her arm but her muscles wouldn't obey. They felt slim, papery. Wasted by the gravity of space-travel. It took all of her remaining strength to pry her mother off of her. "Go home and get some shut-eye, mom,” she said, reeling. Dizzy from the effort and the drugs and the sudden, budding self-reproach, now already fading back to indifference. "Honestly. I'll be fine." She regretted not being able to put any power behind her voice. "Please. Go home and sleep, and come back tomorrow with some flowers. A big bouquet for the corner. Or something. It's plain as hell in here."

A few more teary sniffs from Mrs. Travis, followed by a shaky smile.

The big nurse came again when she was gone. Swift and silent, he shot fifteen CCs of something called Narcadone-Prime into Dee's intravenous line and the digital clock grew fuzzy. Dee had trouble keeping track of the numbers. Before the nurse left she asked him if the Narcadone-Prime – “Or whutevur you callll it,” – worked on her feelings.

The nurse raised a speculative eyebrow. “How do you mean, Private Travis?”

“The . . . stuff,” slurred Dee, struggling to push the words out of her mouth. “Is the ssstuffmmakin’ me numb? I don't mean my shhhhoulders . . . I . . . can’t . . . can’t . . ." A delirious little giggle. "I can't feeeel saaad.”

“Oh?" Said the nurse. He seemed to have no trouble understanding her. "Do you want to feel sad, Private Travis?”

Dee shook her head, smiling dumbly, emptily.

"The Narcadone has a number of side-effects," the nurse told her politely. "We can discuss them in detail tomorrow, after you've rested." 

Dee gave the nurse a dissatisfied scowl. She wanted to ask him other questions, get him to give her a straight answer (How long have I been here? And the scan results? What about my scan results?), but she was already drifting off again. She hoped she wouldn’t dream – but she did. It was another long memory-dream of Mars, interrupted by a light shining in her face and the gasp and hiss of the blood-pressure cuff.

It took Dee a few seconds to get her bearings, and a few more to realize that the light shining in her face was the nurse's pen-light.

She blinked, bleary-eyed, and shrank away.

"Hello again," said the nurse flatly, clicking his pen-light off.

Dee waited for her sleep-muddled brain to catch up with him.

"Hi," she finally croaked, coming out of it, willing her head to clear.

"How are you feeling today?"

Today? Is it day? Which day?

"Fine," said Dee alertly. She took a quick chance to scan the nurse’s shirt-pocket for a name-tag. He didn’t have one. Had he ever? "What day is it?"

The nurse picked up a clipboard at the end of the bed, made a show of reading it, and replaced it. "It's Saturday," he said at last.

Dee nodded. "And where am I, again?"

The nurse seemed thrown by the question. "Don't you know?"

"I know I'm at the Brooklyn Veteran's Hospital. But I don't know which part."

The nurse let out a small bark of laughter. "I see. Well, this –" Gesturing to the room, "–is the postoperative convalescent unit, where patients come when released from Intensive Care after surgery."

"Right. And how long have I been here, again?"

"How long do you think you've been here, Private Travis?"

"I don't know. Two, three days?"

"Oh, you've been our guest for quite a bit longer than that, Private Travis,” said the nurse.

Dee crinkled her nose at him. Guest? This wasn't a hotel. This was a hospital.

“How long have I been here, exactly?” She questioned impatiently.

“Almost four weeks, now," answered the nurse. "Of course, you've only been awake and responsive for a few days. So you're internal chronometer is apt to be a bit . . . confused.”

Dee chewed on that.

Four weeks. I've been in this place four weeks. And I've been in surgery at least once during that time, according to mom.

She tried to call the memory up, but all that came to mind were short, disjointed fragments. A hand washing the blood off her face and gingerly picking grains of sand out of her hair. Warm wet on her cheeks. The sound of her voice, crying. A quartet of strong arms bundling her none-too-gently into the cold, goo-filled cryo-pod. A cold stretch of oddly lucid sleep. Blindly asking for someone, anyone, to “Tell my mom I love her” as she was being wheeled, very fast, down the ship’s descending metal walkway and into the ambulance. Shrill scream of the sirens. Arriving at the hospital, flat on her back, shivering, still half-covered in freezing cryo-goo. Going through a sleek set of automatic doors. Cool blast of air-conditioning and lights flowing past overhead. The echoed sound of speakers issuing pages from somewhere far away. A few confused flashes of faces and operating rooms and looming X-ray machinery. Glimpses of delusions and hallucinations fed by the painkillers dripped into her. Echoing voices and hands and the feel of cotton swabs that smelled vaguely of peppermint. Long bouts of darkness. The abrupt squeak of the gurney wheels as she rolled along, the rectangular fluorescent lights flashing overhead as she was hastily wheeled down to the operating room, and then something thick and rubbery over her mouth, and the cherry-sweet smell of gas. 

Dee choked back a wave of nausea.

"Where's my mother?" She asked the nurse hoarsely.

"I don't know. At home, I expect. Isn’t that where you told her to go?”

She gave the nurse an unsavory look. Had he been eavesdropping?

“When are visiting hours?” She asked him.

“Don't worry, your mother will come again later."

"When?"

"Later," said the nurse. As he spoke, he withdrew a shallow syringe-case and a small glass vile from his pocket.

Dee felt unease flutter awake in her chest. "Later? You mean when I'm asleep? You keep putting me to sleep. Why–"

"We're weaning you off the heavier painkillers. You’ve probably noticed the spike in pain? Don’t worry. It's a good thing. It means you're healing. The Narcadone –" He held up the syringe to show her, "–is just transitionary. It's designed to make you drowsy–"

"No shit."

"–but it's also designed to keep the withdrawal symptoms to a minimum, and to cushion the remaining discomfort."

Dee eyed the syringe suspiciously. The liquid inside was shimmery, yellow, like Martian sunrise.

"You mentioned side-effects," said Dee, working hard to stay calm. "Last time. You said you'd tell me what they are?"

The nurse was surprised. "You remember that?"

"Yeah. In fact, I've been remembering a lot of stuff, lately."

The nurse ran a hand through his neat blonde hair in a gesture that smacked of faux-casualness. "Side-effects with this drug are rare. You have nothing to wo–"

She gave him a commanding, sidelong glare that said Humor me.

The nurse replied in the same way an automated answering machine replies – spitting out each word with a kind of toneless, methodical precision: "Common side-effects of Narcadone-Prime include fatigue and drowsiness, dizziness, upset stomach, dry mouth, mild skin irritation at the injection sight, and loss of sexual desire."

Dee said "Is that all?"

The nurse's eyes flashed in a subtle smile, as though he were privately amused by the question. "Some patients have reported blurred vision and increased irritability. Does that help you?"

Dee's lip twisted. She wanted to tell him – No, that doesn't fucking help me. She wanted to ask him – What about emotional blunting for a side effect, huh, smartass? What about feeling like a zombie since I first woke up? What about nightmares? Does Narcadone cause any of that?

Instead, she frowned and said "How much longer am I on it? I don't want to sleep anymore." She felt the sudden need to clarify. "I just – I don't want to miss my mother the next time she comes. Now that I’m responsive again and everything. You know?"

The nurse's expression flickered somewhere between bored and sympathetic. "I've got you down for at least three more rounds of Narcadone-Prime. Each dose goes down by half." He raised the syringe again, along with the glass vile half-full of the same, shimmery-yellow substance. "See how low the dosage is now? Tomorrow, it will be even lower."

Dee nodded and let out a weary sigh. "Three more rounds."

"That's right. Don't worry. You'll do fine."

Dee went to argue (Pointless? No, maybe there's something else he can give me, a better drug, one that won't put me to sleep –), and the nurse stunned her by dropping a wink of infinite slyness. Another gesture that seemed weirdly fake, after introspection. Dee sat back in the bed and considered him, feeling confused and powerless, as though she were at the mercy of an oppressor she couldn't quite identify.

She resigned herself to it. "Three more rounds. Fine. Give 'em to me."

The nurse stared back at her with that familiar stillness – so rigid and unnatural that, for a minute, Dee mistook him for a figure made of wax. She began to grow mildly uncomfortable.

"Well?" She said brusquely. "What are you waiting for? Knock me out. I want to get this over with as fast as possible, you hear me?"

The big nurse dipped his head once – apologetic – and readied the syringe.

Dee waited until he was finished and said "Hey, you ever hear any word back about my scan results?"

"Not yet," said the nurse.

"How much longer do you think they’ll be?"

"I couldn't possibly say. But don’t worry. You'll know as soon as we do."

 Dee lay still for a full minute. Then she said, "That memory scan you gave me the last time you were in here – well, not the last time, but you know what I mean. It wasn't for my superiors, was it."

"No."

"Really?" Now it was her turn to be surprised. "What was it, then? Just a basic thing? Like, were you just checking my short-term and long-term m–"

"No."

"What was it for?" It was suddenly very important to her that she know.

"You'll have to ask Doctor Harlan," said the nurse.

"Is he the one who fixed my arm?"

"He's the hospital director and the one in charge of your case. He'll come to see you eventually."

"When?"

"Soon."

Dee's eyelids were growing heavy. She shut them and said "How, um, how come he hasn't been to see me already?"

"He's a very busy man, Private Travis. He's on no one's schedule but his own."

Dee nodded, her eyes still closed. The nurse said something more and when she didn't respond, he left. The room was mesmerizingly quiet, and in time Dee drifted back off to the screams of Mars. She wasn't sure at what point someone touched her forehead, or stroked her hair, but she knew instinctively that the hand touching her did not belong to her mother. It was too hesitant. Too light. And the touch it presented was like the touch of a child afraid to disturb a fragile vase for fear of punishment, but eager to play with it all the same. She slept until the next round of cyclic semiconscious, but before the ticking clock-numbers were dim and gone again, before the pain could resurface, she felt warm breath on the shell of her ear and heard the nurse’s voice mutter: “Two more rounds to go, Private Travis. You're doing fine.

After that, sleep reclaimed her, and she became a ship far out to sea. The pain, the fear, the sorrow – all of it – nothing more than a lighthouse on the edge of her horizon. Distant, but always there. Whenever she came too close to the things that upset or hurt her, the big nurse would appear with a fresh syringe and send her sailing away again. She stayed floating languidly in that sea of hazy memory and apathetic calm for many hours, sleeping and dreaming while, elsewhere in the hospital, men in military uniforms met with men in long white coats and quietly discussed her future, and the role they would play in it.

Chapter Text

3.

 APRIL, 2088 - Imprint Commissioned

“Now I'm a scientific expert; that means I know nothing about absolutely everything.”

― Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey 

 


 

[Ed Solvay parks his company van a block from the Brooklyn Veterans Hospital and swipes his scan-card over the meter.

Out of the van, around to the back, the big doors swinging open. Waiting for the ramp to descend, face tired and impersonal, foot tapping on the salty pavement. Now gathering his things, now closing up the van. 

Wearing the quilted jumpsuit workmen wear against the wind, and a long-billed cap against the freezing rain, he goes in the main entrance.]

 

Ed Solvay had a lot of equipment. Two heavy cases full of tools and spare parts, plus his scanner bag and tablet tripod. He made a clatter coming through the automatic door. 

At the security desk he was intercepted by a young guard and asked to show his credentials. He gave the guard a funny look, saw he wasn't joking, and begrudgingly unbuttoned his coat for him. The bright-green Synth-O-Tronics logo was clearly visible above the right breast pocket of his jumpsuit. A lemniscate, the universal symbol for infinity, looping forever out of its self. It had been sewn neatly into the fabric with machine precision. 

"ID too, please," barked the guard.  

Solvay huffed irritably, set down his cases, and – juggling the scanner bag and tripod – dug around in his pockets for his Synth-O-Tronics employee badge. The security guard studied the flat plastic clip-badge for a long moment, and then double-checked the computer screen on his desk.  

"You're here to reconfigure one of our, uh, tin-men, right?” Asked the guard.

"No, I'm here to do your cable. You want HBO, or Showtime?"   

The guard returned Solvay’s badge and hustled him into an office decorated in military tans and old pictures of rocket-ships. In the corner of the den-like room was a wide mahogany desk, the surface of which was bare except for a thin computer monitor and a paperweight-sculpture of Atlas. 

Seated in a deep leather chair before the desk was an unusually tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in nurses' scrubs.

There was something off about the scene. Solvay noticed it right away. Something in the nurse's mop of fine, blonde curls and freshly and cleanly shaved face that looked too smooth, too chiseled, too false. It was there also in way the nurse held himself; curiously still.  

Like a mannequin, thought Solvay. Then, with dawning recognition; No, not a mannequin. Like –  

“A caretaker model Synth-O-Pal,” declared Solvay as he set down his cases. “Hoo-boy, I love working on these guys. They've got the easiest interface this side of Jersey. Wonder which version this one is. We're putting out so many new ones these days, you know? Getting hard to keep track of them all." Taking a shot in the dark, Solvay said "Probably one of the older, CR-Two-Nine-Nineteen-Eighty-One models. Pretty face, though. For an older model.”

“I always thought it was creepy-looking, myself,” the security guard remarked, lingering by ethe doorway.  

“Well, we build 'em friendly, don't you worry,” Solvay assured him, approaching the nurse at a measured, unruffled pace.

The nurse remained motionless, statue-like in the chair. 

“So, how long you been with Synth-O-Tronics?” The security guard asked Solvay conversationally.

“Fifteen years,” Solvay said as he examined the nurse's vacant eyes. They were the same, unnatural shade of iridescent green common to all Synth-O-Tronics synthetics.

“You always been a technician, or–”

“No, I spent my first five years upstate as a recycle-man, hauling old models off to recycling plants," said Solvay. "Then they moved me onto repairs and upgrades. That was over in Newark. Now I’m a certified technician, Brooklyn territory.”

The guard made an impressed noise. “Must be pretty savvy with those things then, huh,” he said, referring to the nurse.

“Best in the city, my guy,” said Solvay distractedly. 

He took a step closer to the nurse and leaned over it, staring, scrutinizing, critiquing the nurse’s square chin, strong cheekbones, the fine, angular nose and strangely pale, blemish-free skin. The nurse looked back at Solvay and saw no one.

“I don't think I could ever do what you do,” the security guard went on.

"I don't ever think I could ever do what you do, guy,” countered Solvay.

"What do you mean?"

"Hospital work. Too much death, you know? I like to work on things that can't die." 

“Those tin-men die all the time, don’t they?”

“They break down,” Solvay specified.

“Well, yeah, but don’t a breakdown count as, like, death for a robot?”  

Solvay glanced sharply at the guard.  

"Excuse me? Does this look like a robot to you?" He gestured pointedly to the nurse in the chair. "Does this look like some cold, mechanical arm putting cars together on an assembly-line? No. Because it's not a robot. It's a Synth-O-Pal." He put on a sugar-sweet smile and said cheerily, "A Synth-O-Pal is warm, friendly, and polite. A Synth-O-Pal is specifically designed to be your best friend."  

He realized he was reciting one of the many Synth-O-Tronics television commercials and let his voice drop back down to normal register.

"Sorry. The boys upstairs dock you if you call them robots,” he told the guard bitterly. 

Just then Dr. James Harlan, the hospital director, came into the office. He was an older man, heavy-jowled with stark gray hair and a permanent sneer. He introduced himself with a rough handshake.   

"Your office or secretary or whatever called the hotline, said something about needing to do an imprint-reformat on one of your Pals," Solvay told him. "I got the work order here if you want to look it over,” he added, pulling a sleek electronic tablet out of one of his equipment bags.  

"That's not necessary," grumbled Harlan. He seemed annoyed to have been pulled away from whatever he'd been doing.   

"Which Pal do you want me to imprint?" Asked Solvay. He wasn't surprised when Harlan pointed to the nurse in the chair. Solvay regarded the nurse coolly for a moment and then said "You put it in full-pause mode, Doc?"  

In full-pause mode the nurse would be passive, compliant, and initiate no action or conversation without first being addressed by a Synth-O-Tronics employee. Solvay never began work on a synthetic before it was set to full-pause mode. 

"Yes, I paused it myself with the command from the manual," said Harlan.

Solvay snapped his fingers in front of the nurse's nose. The nurse did not react.

"Right," said Solvay. "According to the work order I'm imprinting it to custom-care mode. Correct?” 

In custom-care mode a synthetic would display strong, affectionate loyalty to a specific individual, rather than a group of miscellaneous people. 

"That's correct,” said Harlan. “We'll be giving it to one of the patients here.”  

Solvay started to reach for his other equipment bag. “If that’s the case, then I’ll have to do a memory-sync on the patient before I can do anything else.”  

Harlan withdrew a thin strip of metal from his pocket and held it up for Solvay to see. “Already taken care of.”

From a distance the strip of metal in Harlan’s hand looked like a foil-wrapped stick of chewing gum, but Solvay knew it was really a neuro-data sync-card. One of the newer, smaller, multi-memory containers. 

Solvay gave a curt nod to Harlan, booted up his tablet, and swiped a stubby finger across the screen. "Okay, let's get started."


[Two floors up, Dee Travis lays limply in the automated medical bed, hovering somewhere between the thin veil of sleep and memory, listening to the whir of propeller blades. The crunch of boots on sand. 

She's back on Mars. Help is on the way.

Faintly, struggling – “Help."

Blood down her arm and chest. Light in her eyes. Help is here.

A croaking plea – "Help me. Someone.” 

Hands on her then. Dad, she thinks. And – Of course not don’t be stupid. An emergency medical technician is kneeling beside her. Not her dead father. He's doing something. Cutting off her exojacket. He speaks calmly, even cheerily, as he works.

“How you doing, solider?” 

She remembers thinking what a stupid question that is. She remembers rasping out a question of her own – a question considerably less stupid. “How much blood have I lost?"

The medic doesn't know yet, but he's honest with her. It doesn't look good.

"Am I going to die?”

The medic tells her no, she’s not going to die, not if he has anything to say about it. He asks her if she can wiggle the fingers on her right hand. She thinks he might just as well ask her to demonstrate self-torture. 

Through gritted teeth – “Gaaah there did they move?”

“Yes.”

“Swear to God?” She’s starting to pass out again.

The medic nods, bends down into her face, asks her, very slowly and loudly, what her name is. She can't remember, but she’s able to give him her unit number, her dog-tag number, her Social Security number. She has all her numbers. It's just everything else that's missing.

The medic keeps nodding and smiling as he cuts the exojacket off of her swollen, bloodied chest. 

“I’m sorry,” she tell him – she's not sure what for, specifically, maybe for all of it – and then she’s gone for a little while.]


“Imprinting Protocol Directions for Caretaker Model," hummed Solvay's tablet in a sexless, monotone voice. "Pre-setup: In order to properly setup the Synth-O-Pal for imprinting, you will first need to retrieve the Synth-O-Pal's unique identification number.   

"Using your tablet's built-in barcode reader application, scan the barcode on the back of the Synth-O-Pal's neck, just above the Power Button. The barcode can be found in the same location on all Synth-O-Pal models."  

Gently, Solvay placed his free hand on the back of the synthetic nurse's thick neck, and pushed. The nurse gave no resistance. It simply lowered its head and stared blankly at its shoes. Solvay rounded the chair and faced the nurse like a barber preparing to give a haircut. Sure enough, he saw a small, red shape standing out on the nape of the nurse's neck. It looked at first like a perfectly formed red mole, but Solvay knew better. Squinting, he could just make out the words “ON/OFF", etched finely onto the surface of the mole-like shape. And below them, a tiny, black variation of the Synth-O-Tronics logo, tattooed across the nurse's replicated skin as a series of thin, vertical lines – like a barcode.   

Solvay quickly scanned the logo using the bubble-like lens on the end of his tablet, and waited for the image to register. Right away a new display blinked to life on his tablet screen.   

Wireless access granted.

Solvay watched as a small flood of information flashed across the face of the tablet. Activation dates, serial numbers for individual parts, tracking-chip locations (past and present), unit fluid levels and power consumption charts, engineering notes, schematic drawings, long strings of near-indecipherable programming code.  

Solvay flipped through the blocks of data to the section labeled Recycled Parts. According to the bright digital readout, most of the nurse was brand-new. It had only one repurposed part; the central processing unit – a highly complex, extensive set of electro-bionic circuitry that executed stored program instructions. In certain circles, the central processing unit was considered the memory center of a Synth-O-Pal’s synthetic brain.

Solvay checked the list on the screen labeled Previous Configurations and saw a single character-persona file associated with the nurse's CPU – a file that was almost a decade old. 

He frowned. 

Character-persona files were basically programmable personalities for synthetics. If the nurse had an old character-persona file still partially active in it’s CPU, Solvay would need to run a time-consuming Archive Configuration command in order to create space enough for the imprint. Otherwise, the nurse would get confused and think it was two different synthetics, with two different prime directives, only one of which would come from the new imprint. 

But when Solvay went to open the persona file he discovered – much to his relief – that it had been properly stored and locked with an encryption code. This meant there was no chance the old persona file could interfere with the new one, or with the memories he was planning to imprint.

Solvay relaxed and carried on reading over the text. After a few short minutes he was ready to move on.

“Okay, so it looks like this Caretaker was first turned on about thirteen years ago, and set to the default temporary-hospital-mode," he said, reading aloud from the screen. "What’s it been doing all that time? Changing bedpans and giving sponge baths?"  

Harlan nodded from behind his desk.  

"So it's been around people a lot. What shifts do you have it working?"

"We let it power down for a few hours, usually between midnight and six," Harlan told him. "Beyond that, it's always on call."  

Solvay hummed his intrigue. "How's its default personality working out? Pretty dull, or has it got a good bedside manner, would you say?"  

"Reasonably good, I think. That is, we've never had any complaints."  

Solvay was satisfied with that. “So it’s been working as a nurse for thirteen years, and now you want me to imprint it to a patient?”  

Another nod from Harlan. 

"Who's the patient?" 

Solvay was shown a digital photo of a trim, petite woman of about thirty, sharply dressed in plain brown military fatigues. Her muted fierceness reminded Solvay vaguely of wartime posters. Rosie-the-riveter and other feminine embodiments of capable strength.   

"Goes by the name of Donna Travis," Harlan told him, swiveling his desk monitor back around. 

“PTSD case?” Guessed Solvay. 

“Mm, yes. Twelve years in the colonial marines, recently returned from Mars. The only one of her platoon to survive the Battle of Newton, in fact,” said Harlan grimly.

Solvay offered a slow, tentative nod and consulted his tablet again.

“For legal reasons, I have to inform you, and by proxy your patient, that the imprinting process is irreversible in Caretaker models,” he told Harlan in a frank, businesslike tone. “Once I execute this command, there's no going back. This Caretaker’s – well, let’s just call it a sense of duty, shall we – would be sealed, in a sense hardwired, and your patient's memories would be a part of it forever. We won't be able to re-sell it, so if your patient decides they don't want it, or they don’t need it anymore, they'll be responsible for saying the selected deactivation-phrase and then returning it to a Synth-O-Tronics store for recycling. Or for calling a recycle-man to come collect it, or for sending it on its own to a stand-alone recycling facility." He paused to catch his breath and let Harlan absorb what he had told him. "Do I have your permission to proceed, Doc?"

"You have my permission."


[Dee Travis is sinking further into the nightmare of her memory.

She remembers going away for a little while. Not quite a blackout. More like a scene missing. As though the film of her memory has been handed off to a cut-happy editor, and then poorly spliced back together again. When at last she comes back, she's been stripped of her exojacket and the top half of her uniform. The medic is manhandling her.

"Don't worry. We've got you, solider. We've got you."

Other men arriving now. Somewhere a radio crackles out attack-calls. She's hoisted suddenly, violently off the ground. It hurts. She screams. She's put on a stretcher, lifted up to hip-height. A wave of fuzzy blackness, and then she dips back to unconsciousness.]


Solvay set up the tripod beside the chair, rested his tablet on it like a sheet of music, and arranged himself in front of it. 

"Let me just shut the Caretaker down and then we’ll get going with the imprint.”  

Solvay's fingers raced nimbly over the tablet screen, scrolling through nine different commands in quick succession, releasing multiple security locks, and passing through half a dozen firewalls. Before long the tablet's polite, mechanical voice rang out again.

"Access granted."  

The nurse in the chair blinked, glanced blearily around, and addressed Solvay in a bland but agreeable baritone.  

"Good morning, EDWARD SOLVAY, Synth-O-Tronics employee number four-four-one-eight. How may I help you today?"   

Awake and active, the nurse was the perfect imitation of life. A true work of art. Solvay had to take a moment to appreciate the detail in its performance. How convincingly its chest rose and fell, how subtly its nostrils flared and its eyelids blinked, how the muscles in its face and neck twitched whenever it spoke. 

“How may I help you today?" The nurse repeated amicably.   

"Caretaker, what's your name?" Asked Solvay in a loud, authoritative voice.  

"Andy," said the nurse.

Solvay recognized the name as one from the default list. "Andy, I'd like to perform an admin override, please."

"Certainly. Just a moment."    

Solvay waited.

The nurse's eyes glossed over, flickered, and then brightened as if in understanding. "Admin override initiated."

"Thanks, Andy, appreciate it."

"Of course."

Solvay turned to Harlan. "Have to check on a few things first, Doc, then I'll start the imprint."

Harlan’s eyes narrowed. “What things, exactly?”

“Just your basic mechanical stuff."

"Why?"

"Safety. So I don't wind up imprinting a faulty Pal. Relax. It's nothing to worry about."

Solvay glanced down at the tablet. First on his list was the software check, which involved both a three-part physical response test, and afterward, a two-part emotional response test. Standing in front of the tripod, Solvay asked the nurse what it felt. The answer came in clipped, monotone sentences.

"Air conditioning. Humidity. Clothes on skin. Soft chair cushion. Carpet under shoes–"  

Solvay raised his hand and the babbling nurse fell silent. From one of his cases Solvay retrieved a pair of thin, metal darts, and threw one with hard precision at the nurse. The sharp tip of the dart went whizzing through the air and struck the center of the nurse’s bulky forearm. The nurse let out a tiny yelp of simulated pain. Wincing, it yanked the dart out of its arm and tossed it aside in a frightened, panicky way – as though it suspected the dart of potential retaliation. 

Solvay grinned. The nurse had just displayed a perfect pain response. He went to throw the second dart. The nurse flinched and raised its hands up in self-defense. Solvay’s grin widened. The nurse had displayed another perfect response – this one for pain prevention. It’s synthetic nervous system appeared to be functioning more than adequately. Solvay retrieved the first dart from the floor, and then noted the outcome of the test in his tablet. 


[The clatter of the quadcopter's rotors is very loud, and the attack-calls are closer now, static-laced but crisp.

Dee Travis is laying on her back watching the sky whip by. Quick dart of sunlight through yellow clouds, the sensation of being moved. Something soft under her, the stretcher. A face looms into view, upside-down. The medic again. He’s carrying the front end of the stretcher, by her head, and peering down at her as he runs. She feels the pant of his breath hot on her forehead, smells sweat and blood and gunpowder. Noise in the distance, growing hard and insistent, like a heartbeat. The roar of approaching quad-copters, more of them, an entire flock, an entire fleet. Her own heavy breathing accompanies the sound.

The medic shouts into her ear: “Stay awake, god dammit!”

Had she been drifting off again? 

“I said stay awake!”

She tries to tell him that she will – Yes, sir, no lying down on the job, sir – but she can't. It's gotten very hard to breathe.]


“What are you doing now?” Asked the security guard, peering over Solvay's shoulder with keen interest.    

“Emotional response test. Part of the software check,” said Solvay. He switched the tablet display over to a view of dials and showed the security guard the screen. “See these dials? Each one’s designed to gauge pre-programmed emotional responses in synthetic organisms. Works a little like a lie detector. I ask Andy here a series of questions, and the dials measure what the reactions are. If Andy reacts the wrong way more than ten times, I know he's got defective software.”  

“How do you know what the wrong reactions are, though?” Asked the guard. 

“We tend to look for whatever counts as a practical reaction. Example – let’s say your wife tells you she’s screwing your brother. How would you react?”  

“I’d probably kick the shit out of my brother," said the guard, matter-of-factly. 

“So, your reaction would be anger. See? That falls under the category of practical reactions. So does sadness, or envy," said Solvay. 

"Oh. So it's sort of like a psyche-scan," mused the guard.

"Sort of," said Solvay. He turned back to the nurse in the chair and, watching the dials on the tablet screen closely, said “Andy, define yourself. What are you?”  

“I am a CR-Two-Nine-Nineteen-Eighty-One caretaker model Synth-O-Pal,” chimed the nurse. 

“Are you organic, Andy?”  

“No. I am synthetic.”  

“How does being synthetic make you feel, Andy?”  

“I don’t know. I’ve nothing to compare it to.”  

Standard answers to standard questions. So far so good.  

"You work around organics?” Asked Solvay.

“I do,” said the nurse.

"How do you feel about being subservient to organic people?"  

"Am I subservient?"  

"You serve organics."  

"I help organics," the nurse pointed out.  

"Fine. You help them. Do you like being forced to help them?"  

"I'm not forced. I do it on my own," the nurse said respectfully.  

"Why?"  

"I like it."  

"Why do you like it?"  

"I was made to help people. It’s the reason I exist. It's my purpose. I like fulfilling my purpose."  

The security guard made a comment. “Damn thing sounds brainwashed." 

“It’s supposed to,” said Solvay. “Andy, do you think you’re special?”  

“Please elaborate.”  

“Special. You know? Important. Unique. Compared to other synthetics, I mean.”  

The nurse took a moment to consider the question. "There are those who may view me as unique, but I can’t speak for them personally.”  

“Nobody thinks you’re unique, Andy!” Solvay spat with sudden, fuming disdain. 

Harlan jumped behind his desk, caught off-guard by the sudden rise in volume. By the doorway, the security guard made a fast, jerking reach for his mace, but stopped halfway when he realized what Solvay was doing.

“You’re one of many, all the same, all mass-produced, all not special!" Solvay shouted cruelly. "You're stamped out on an assembly-line, Andy. Do you understand?" 

“I understand,” said the nurse with a smile. 

"How does it make you feel? To know you're not special?”  

"I don't mind not being special," the nurse said, still smiling, appropriately docile. "So long as I'm useful, I'm happy to exist." 

"Do you think anybody would miss you if you were destroyed?" Asked Solvay harshly.  

"It's possible.”

"Wrong!" Hissed Solvay. "No one would miss you. You’re replaceable, Andy. Totally replaceable.”  

A long silence, then this weird artificial laugh: "Ehe-ehe-ehe!" 

"Stop laughing!" Solvay shrieked. 

The nurse stopped laughing and smiled stupidly.

More silence. Solvay looked for signs of malfunction in the nurse. Things like artificial tears welling in its eyes, a tremble in its lips, an angry crinkle between the eyebrows. He saw nothing, glimpsed down at his tablet. The virtual needles of the dials quivered on the screen, but not enough to qualify as a bad reaction.   

Solvay asked several more piercing questions (all designed to provoke), got similar responses (all submissively polite), and then switched the tablet over to the next screen.  

“So? Did he pass?” Asked the security guard, fascinated by the exchange.  

“With flying colors,” said Solvay genially. 


[Frenzy of movement. Dee Travis is a leaf on the back of an angry river. They load her into the medvac quadcopter, and for one, fast instant she can see a brilliant wedge of solid rainbow as they lift off; the shell of the terraforming dome. Beautiful, scintillate, like an enormous soap bubble. Then it's gone.  

High-pitched whine of ramjets laboring against heavy side-winds. The steep lifts and drops, the sensation of being trapped in a manic elevator. 

On board the medvac quadcopter a pair of medics huddle over her. One of them rummages in a Temporary-Field-Care kit, produces a sleek dart-gun – a Stat Rapid Hemostasis System – and juts the nozzle against her shoulder. Fast pop as he squeezes the trigger and a sealant sponge injects into the gaping wound. 

Her shoulder flares, tingles, falls numb. 

A voice shouts over the deafening blast of the turbulence: “How we looking?”

The first medic removes the dart-gun. “Got a sponge in. Ought to hold her for about four hours. How long ’til we reach Docking Bay Six?”

“ETA’s forty minutes.”

“Tell the ship's med-center to prep for us. I want a life-cart there waiting.”

More radio voices. Less attack-calls now. More orders to fall back. 

It's getting harder to breathe. She gestures at one of the medics, or tries to. Thanks to the newly-applied sponge her arm is useless, and now her chest feels like there’s a cow sitting on it. A third face bends upside down into her field of vision. She whispers up at it, but even that’s a strain. She feels like she’s drowning. In the desert – hah, of all places!

Someone checks something and shouts out: “Genson. Gimme the compressor. Got a collapsed lung here."

Rattle of paper. One of the medics is unwrapping something. She tries to sit up, see what's going on, to suck in a breath, and finds – alarmingly – that she has no power for any of it. She starts to panic. Thin, leaky wheezes of hyperventilation. Spots dance in her peripherals. She doesn’t want to die. She loves her mother and her military career and the opportunities (the adventure) it affords her. She loves her life, and she doesn’t want to die, and as she lays there in the quadcopter looking dimly up at the patchwork-metal ceiling, her vision growing darker, hazier, she realizes that she probably will. That this is it. She’s going to suffocate out here, at the edge of space in the one place there’s plenty of oxygen. And there’s nothing she can do about it.

Please God no.

Without warning the medic reappears with his fist raised, and there’s a new pain. A fast thump above her right breast, and then a sharp, slicing pinch. She imagines a fancy fountain pen, the kind a wealthy businessman might keep on his desk, sticking solidly out of her chest. A moment later, the soft in-out of normal respiration returns, though accompanied by an unpleasant, gunky-sounding whistle. She takes in the air with long, gulping, greedy breaths until her head spins pleasantly.


Solvay typed a new command into his tablet. "Andy, mute all your feelings and raise your insight."  

The nurse's ever-present smile went away. It's shoulders drooped. It became sedate.  

“How do you feel now, Andy?” Asked Solvay, scanning for an emotional response.

“Fine,” said the nurse. Only this time it's voice came out sounding deeply drugged.  

"What do you feel, Andy?" 

"That depends on the stimuli."

The dials on the tablet screen were still. Solvay let out a pleased hum. The nurse had responded analytically, just as it had been asked to. 

"Are you happy in your nursing role, Andy?" Solvay continued.  

"I am, yes."  

Only the nurse didn't look happy. It didn't really look any way. It's face was smoothly blank, all except for the eyes. Solvay thought he could see a muted sadness in them, but he attributed that to imagination. He typed a quick note into his tablet, waited, and then typed another.  

Bright words flashed across the screen: INSPECTION REQUIREMENT – EMPOWERMENT PRINCIPLE.  

Developed at the University of Hertfordshire by Christoph Salge, the Empowerment Principle was the primary safety sub-routine for all synthetic lifeforms on the market.  

"Okay, gonna go ahead with the security and safety part of the software check now," announced Solvay, his eyes on the screen. "Andy, I want you to keep your insight raised, and recite the Empowerment Principle guidelines for me." 

In a cool, impersonal voice the nurse said “Universal organic empowerment is my motivator and my inspiration. It is my responsibility to empower myself, so that I can successfully empower the organics around me."

Solvay nodded, monitoring the readout on his screen closely.

"I will protect myself and keep myself functioning," continued the nurse, "so I can do the same for the organics around me. I will remain nearby and follow the directions of the organics around me. I will keep my options open, and act within the best interest of universal organic empowerment."  

Solvay grinned.

"Super. Security and safety check complete. What else, what else." His eyes skimmed swiftly down the tablet screen. "Ah, right. Hardware check. Take a lap around the room for me, will you, Andy?”  

The nurse was even taller standing up. It had a flexible, self-confident way of moving, and the kind of sure, mobile features that screamed athletic superiority. It walked briskly around the room once, and stopped by the chair.  

"One more time, please. Great, that's great. Now – freeze."  

The nurse froze mid-step by the chair. Solvay took in the scene. He thought it looked like a still-frame photograph. He muttered to himself.

"No jerking, no zombie-arms, gait looks pretty fluid.” The new data was quickly logged into the tablet. “That’s it for advanced motor functions and coordination. You can sit back down now, Andy."  

The nurse took its seat.

Solvay referred again to the tablet. It was time to perform the actual imprint. He touched the screen and the nurse jerked in the chair.  

“Hold still,” ordered Solvay.  

The nurse went rigid.  

“Alright, we’re good to go here, Doc,” said Solvay, glancing up at Harlan. “You still have that sync-card handy?”


[She remembers coming back to herself a little in the quadcopter. Reaching out with her good arm to limply tug the medic’s sleeve. Struggling to stay awake. Rasping out: “Ambush. They were waiting. They–”

“We know."

“What . . . What’s happening?”

“You’re being evacuated.”

Dumbly, frightened: “Alexa. Alexa and Bennet and the oth–”

“There’s no one else. You’re it.”

“I’m – I’m – But what about –”

“Whole fleet’s pulling out. Order came in two hours ago. Let the colonists do whatever they want with Mars.”

From the pilot’s seat: “Yeah! Fuck it! Can’t grow nothin' on this sand trap anyway!”

Hoarsely, faintly: "But–But–"

The medic shakes his head, mumbles to himself: "Pointless waste, if you ask me."

She remembers a bombardment of flack exploding all around the quadcopter then. The shock waves rocking the craft violently and the infantry gunners firing high-density water pulses into the desert below. She remembers the yellow sky growing blacker and blacker out the wide quadcopter windows. The desert shrinking, the turbulence steadily dropping off. Blacker and blacker, the very last of the gold-yellow clouds scrolling down to reveal a roll of shimmering stars and then the Docking Bay of the War Ship looming over them like the mouth of a massive metal shark.

Sleep swallows her just before the ship can.] 


Harlan handed the memory-sync card over to Solvay. Solvay made sure to hold the fragile strip of metal as delicately as possible. It contained a lifetime’s worth of recorded memories, many of which would be integral to formatting the synthetic nurse's new personality.

“Andy, say ah,” requested Solvay. 

The nurse's head rolled limply back against the chair and it’s jaw fell open. With the card in hand, Solvay bent over the nurse like a dentist and felt a wet puff of minty, artificial breath ghost over his face.    

“Wider, please."  

The nurse's face twitched, tightened, and then split wetly apart into four equally measured sections, like the petals of a Venus flytrap. Below the gaping face-mask gleamed a sleekly muscled, gray endoskeleton – a skull-shaped mass covered with intricate bio-synthetic motors, servos and tiny bits of pulsing pink circuitry. Beneath them, stretched over the skull-mass like a tight nylon sock, was a net of slender wires and cables that resembled a multi-colored blood vessel network. And set into the upper middle of the grotesquely beautiful net were the nurse's glossy, unblinking eyes. Globs of clear blue hydraulic fluid dripped thickly around and in-between them, giving off the subtle, bittersweet smell of baby oil. 

“My god, that’s hideous,” said Harlan, grimacing.  

By the door the security guard let out a disgusted retch. “Hideous? Hell, that’s the creepiest damn thing I ever saw in my life!” 

Solvay ignored them both (Less creepy than a cadaver, I’ll bet) and fed the sync-card into the small slot above the bridge of the nurse's oil-covered, cartilaginous nose. From this angle he could see the lid of the CPU, enclosed in its gelatinous, purse-like casing just beyond the slot. On its own the CPU was shimmery, smooth – an onion-like orb made from thin, brittle cubes of silver-pink metal that spiraled around in a stair-stepped structure. While it was not alive in the organic sense, it held over a geobyte of data within its core. As much information as any living DNA strand.  

At the tablet it took Solvay ten minutes to lay down the synthetic memory system. When he was finally finished he turned back to the nurse. 

"Andy, say cheese."  

The segments of the nurse's face snapped back into place like puzzle pieces. No hint of their seams remained beyond a thin trickle of hydraulic fluid dripping subtly down the nurse's left cheek. Solvay reached out and sponged the fluid away with the sleeve of his jumpsuit.  

"Andy, go ahead and upload those memories, and initialize the personality coding."  

The nurse's jaw clenched. It's expression clouded and relaxed. It's eyes were still open, but it seemed to see nothing again. 

"Syncing memories now,” it sighed dreamily. 

A progress bar materialized on the screen of Solvay's tablet. Solvay watched it closely.

It read: [50% uploaded. 70% uploaded. 95% uploaded.] 

Memory sync complete,” said the nurse. “Analyzing memories now.

With that, the nurse's eyes closed again, and re-opened with the same blank expression. Only now the green of the artificial irises had darkened to a deep and vacant black, like those of a doll.  

Solvay glanced up from the progress bar. The nurse stared emptily back at him from the chair. 

Analysis complete.

Solvay tensed. This was it. The defining moment. 

Formatting personality now . . .

 

Chapter Text

4.

APRIL, 2088 - After Imprint 

“Pictures came with touch… A painter in my mind, tell me what you see… A room within a room, a door behind a door… I need something more…”

–Daft Punk


 

IM·PRINT

/Imˈprint/ 

verb

  1. To come to recognize (another animal, person, or thing) as a parent or other object of habitual trust. 
  2. To program, condition or otherwise shape the faithfulness, obedience or overall mental behavior of a synthetic organism. 
  3. To make an impression, have an effect, or fix firmly on the mind, memory, etc.
  4. To impress (a quality, character, distinguishing mar, etc.) on an object.
  5. To bestow, as a kiss.   

synonyms: fix, establish, stick, lodge, implant, plant, embed, instill, impress, inculcate

 “The image was imprinted into his mind"

 

ME·CHAN·I·MAL

/məˈkanəm(ə)l/ 

noun

  1. A machine that resembles an organic creature, familial, exotic, extinct, or otherwise. 
  2. A mechanical animal which is able to learn, behave according to pattern, and alter its actions depending upon environmental stimuli. 
  3. A dog or cat-shaped device able to replicate certain canine or feline movements and functions automatically.
  4. An artificially crafted smart toy which effectively has its own intelligence by virtue of on-board electronics.

synonyms: iPet, smart pet, smart toy, cyber toy, cat-bot, dog-bot, M&D toy

 “Her new pet turned out to be a Mechanimal"


[Binary code is a two-symbol coding system, using the digits one and zero to represent a letter, digit, or other character in an electronic device. It is the language of computers and synthetics alike. 

Behind the eyelids of the synthetic nurse we can see flat black, like a blank computer screen, like the vast emptiness of space. This void-like construct is both a loading program, and a physical representation of the synthetic nurse’s CPU. 

Watch as a flood of ones and zeroes zig across the void in linear streams like falling rain. 

<01100010 01110010 01100001 01101001 01101110>

Translation? 

<form name="BRAIN"> 

Watch as the words twist into one another. Watch as they merge neatly together to form the shape of a humanoid brain in 3D space. Watch as this brain becomes a mind. As the mind becomes a consciousness. As the consciousness becomes aware of its self. 

It knows it has a body, with all the working components and attributes. It knows it has a name –

<01000001 01101110 01100100 01111001>

<form name="ANDY">

– that its job –

<"PRIMARY FUNCTION">

– is that of a nurse at the Brooklyn Veterans Hospital in New York City.

It –

<dl> He masculine I am He </dl>

– takes a second to reflect on his current purpose, the hospital, the paths he walks there. He maps them out, traces the parts of his job that each path represents. The pre-planned order of his synthetic world is here, condensed into a neat little grid of repetitive actions and reoccurring duties. He calls up his itinerary for the day, flicks through the cache with a speed no organic creature could hope to possess. At 13:00 he needs to feed Lieutenant Rogers. At 14:00 he has to bathe Colonel Yeremian. At 15:00 –

In a vague, unconscious way Andy aspires to do better. He may even want to do better (if a synthetic can do such a thing). He hopes to have another name, to be given that name and to mean something to someone. Anyone at all. 

But he also knows he has duties to perform. 

At 13:00 he needs to feed Lieutenant Rogers. At 14:00 he has to bathe Colonel Yeremian. At 15:00 –

Interruption.

Ripples in the stream. 

New data coming in.

Watch as Andy’s duplicate (his residual self-image) appears alone in the empty, blank space – a lone gray light blinking steadily in the void. Watch as a room forms around Andy out of the void. Ones and zeroes become fuzzy shapes, like walls. Blurry patches of carpet stretch out below Andy's feet. 

Like many machines, he thinks of his functional operation (everything that came after his activation) in visual terms. The visual is first in his memory bank. Although he has never kept a mind palace, he does store his memories (or what a machine might label memories) as mnemonic images in a kind of ‘imaginary’ location. An artificial intelligence specialist might describe this location as something less like a palace, and more like a gallery. Something large and elegant. A well-lit place full of countless wings, decorated with many eclectic works of art. 

In the tiny span of a nano-second, Andy finds himself standing in a freshly rendered, monochrome hallway, looking at a series of framed pictures, like illustrations in a medical book. 

These are images of Andy as a nurse, carefully administering a catheter, strapping down a flailing patient, drawing blood from a withered arm, bandaging a sprained ankle, mopping up a puddle of vomit. He knows these images. They symbolize his daily routine – the jobs he’s done here at the hospital since his activation. Only something’s happening to these images. They're crumpling, wilting, yellowing at the corners. It's almost as though they’re being burned away by an invisible flame.

It takes less than a minute for Andy to realize what’s happening.

He's undergoing a reset. His old work-routines are being erased from his CPU. The memories in his memory-bank are being deleted one by one to make room for something else. A higher calling. An updated purpose. 

 Andy looks on with unflustered curiosity as the rest of his routines are stripped apart, and expunged from his mind. Up to now his mind gallery has been woefully empty, and his purpose in life – or whatever passes for "life" wherever synthetics are concerned – underwhelmingly small. He knows his name is Andy, but soon, he may have a different name. He can sense it coming like he can sense transcendence coming. Can feel it here, now, at the lip of his mind, ready to fill him up.

To recreate him.

And he wants it to.]

 

Two things happened at once. 

The digital gallery which served as Andy’s mind gallery expanded from a single, dimly lit corridor sparsely furnished with several rudimentary operational drawings, to a winding labyrinth of mile-long corridors. The walls of these black-and-white corridors then became clearer, brighter, more colorful and focused. They filled abruptly with numerous, unfamiliar pieces of artwork, some as small and flimsy as postage stamps, others as big and heavy as slabs of highway concrete, all of them showcasing the same, specific figure: 

A trim woman, naturally small, but in possession of an imperious face and hard, gritty eyes.  

The works of art captured her in various stages of life. Infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood. They chronicled over thirty years of borrowed memories, and at their sudden, intruding swirl of color, Andy blanched. At the same time, the gallery filled and spun away from him like a tangle of roots from some exotic tree, the information spreading, launching, a hundred thousand seeds bombarding him now from every possible angle, inserting themselves into his database with violent insistence. It seemed for a moment like he would rupture under the sheer vastness of what he was taking on. 

<dl> All of her every instance every moment so much so much oh </dl>

But then he was managing it, somehow. Letting it wash over him. Feeling it rinse him clean like a baptism.

When he came back to himself the gallery was finished, and he found he was standing before an enormous bronze bust of the woman. It had been placed in the center of the gallery like a military monument. Inscribed on the base of the bust in neat, bold lettering was the name Private Donna E. Travis. 

Andy stared at the bust for a long time. It was a permanent fixture in the gallery – the representation of his updated purpose, as well as the first in a collection of new experiences to explore. The reality of this delighted Andy beyond measure. He let his mind race through the maze of corridors, excited to discover aspects of a life both beautifully alien, and (now) strangely familiar. 

Bold paintings shouted at him from the walls as he zoomed past. He caught only blurry glimpses of them, but even blurry glimpses were enough to thrill him, until he could feel something vaguely warm and electric welling in his head. An odd kind of current, like a spark of energy running through the base of him and back out again. The bulk of it manifested in the form of pressure behind his eyes and nose, the synthetic equivalent of a sinus headache, but different somehow. Heavier. Sharper. More urgent. Sure he must be building up a charge, he flexed his fingers and saw crackles of electricity arcing between them. Surprised, he clenched his fist, and produced a bolt of blinding radiance, the blaze of which rivaled anything his internal processors had ever registered before. The bolt slithered in the air, half-solid, half-fluid, a new program running, arcing and lunging toward the nearest paintings. There was a flash as the tip of the bolt attached its self to the base of a small, post-card shaped painting, and then another flash as a second bolt leapt from Andy’s hand and attached its self to the base of another. Again and again this happened, until a dozen links of fizzling programming stretched around him. One by one, these links became a tether – a web of pure, connective energy, like a burst of lightning frozen in time. Its branches held Andy together, anchoring him fast to the paintings. Together, they strung back to a single origin point: The bronze bust of Private Donna E. Travis, the ward Andy had been reconfigured to serve until the day he ceased to function.

This was her network of pre-recorded electrical impulses, a reconstruction of her limbic system flashing awake to form various shapes in the dark of Andy's artificial mind, like Christmas lights atop the roof of a great, black house. She was the root that formed this mental connection, and the presence that would now and forever keep Andy whole.


[Inside the void, the last of Donna Travis’ artwork is populating Andy's memory bank – what we now know to be a digital mind gallery. 

Outside the void is the small hospital office where Andy is seated. Or, rather, Andy's synthetic body is seated, trance-like in the chair, operating separately from its mind in the kind of multitasking only a machine can perform. 

In front of Andy's body stands Ed Solvay, studiously monitoring the progress bar on his tripod tablet. Looking on with fascination are Dr. James Harlan, and the security guard.]

 

Ten minutes passed before Solvay saw the synthetic nurse's eye spring open. As anticipated, the irises had returned to their previous, vibrant green color, and the pupils were now wide with child-like acceptance.

"Formatting complete," said the nurse.  

Doctor Harlan rose behind his desk. “Is it finished?" There was a touch of impatience in his voice. 

"Almost," said Solvay. "I have to check if the memories took, first. Sometimes they don't.”

His fingers clacked across the tablet screen. There was a low hum from the nurse's chest, and then a high-pitched whining sound. 

A beat.

The eyes of the nurse grew suddenly, comically wide, then glazed to a dull blankness.  Another round of conformational beeps echoed from its robust chest, and then the color drained from its face. It’s mouth fell slackly open. 

"What's happening?" Said Harlan with alarm. "Did you break it?"

"I executed a wireless shutdown," Solvay said calmly.   

The nurse's entire body twitched and seized for a moment, and then slumped forward in the chair like a marionette cut loose from its strings.  

Solvay came swiftly around the tripod and pressed the mole-shaped red button on the back of the nurse's neck, holding it down for a full ten seconds. As his finger came off the button, the nurse's eyes opened alertly.

“Hey," Solvay said loudly. 

The nurse straightened in the chair and in a variety of different languages said "Hello". 


[Andy reboots, freshly imprinted with a hundred new memories swirling appealingly in his mind. 

He reboots, and latches greedily onto the Wi-Fi. Thanks to his internal GPS, he knows he's on the eastern coast of the United States, in New York City. Specifically, Brooklyn. Even more specifically, the Brooklyn Veterans Hospital, ground floor, west wing, fourth office from the right. The office of hospital director Doctor James Harlan. His newly activated ward-locator tells him something similar – that Private Donna E. Travis is in the office of hospital director Doctor James Harlan, as well.] 

 

A middle-aged man stood in front of Andy. He was square chinned, brown-eyed, and dressed in a Synth-O-Tronics company-issue employee jumpsuit. Andy greeted him with a half dozen words, all of which meant the same thing.

The technician said “English, please.”

Andy let his language setting switch over to English, and then fell silent.

"Can you understand me?" Asked the technician.

Andy responded with a small, meek nod.

"What’s your name?"

He flicked through his registry files, came to the default section, and said “My name is Andy."

This, apparently, was an acceptable answer. 

“Who registered you, Andy?" Asked the technician. "Who do you belong to?"

No struggle. Only instant, infallible knowledge, as though the needle of some internal compass had come awake inside his mind, and spun to a stop in what could only be the direction of– 

“Private Donna E. Travis,” said Andy, smiling a dreamy, dumbstruck kind of smile. He could not yet see her, even though his vantage point showed him most of the room.    

"And what is your prime directive, Andy?” Asked the technician.   

The answer came on reflex: “To keep Private Donna E. Travis healthy, happy, and safe." 

The technician stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Tell me a little bit about Private Donne E. Travis, Andy.”

Andy summarized what he knew. "Donna Eleanor Travis is an American soldier and engineer. Travis' current age is thirty. Her current military rank is that of a Private, E-One class. She has no spouse or children."

A beat.

"Gonna need a little more information from you than that, Andy," said the technician.

Andy took a moment to reference the paintings in his gallery. He pictured himself – his digital self – ascending the cupped stone beside the frescoed wall of a steep staircase. At the landing he again saw the bronze bust of Travis. He paused for a fast nanosecond to admire it. Then he made his way down the main lobby, past the darkest hallways where the bleakest paintings hung, and into a small corridor lined with primitive weapons: nerf guns, couch pillows, a foam sword from a renaissance festival. 

This was the Childhood section of the gallery he and Donna Travis shared. A section where vibrant, colorful memories hung. He intended to acquaint the technician with the history of Donna Travis in a sensible, linear way – and where better to begin than Childhood?

The first wing Andy came to was short and dusty, and the few scant pieces of artwork it contained were badly faded and hard to decipher. Many were damaged by what looked like grime and smoke and other pollutants. What was, in reality, the dirt and scuffed holes of hazy memory. Andy wasn’t worried. He knew the clarity of the artwork he saw would increase the further forward he traveled. He would find the clearest and crispest pieces at the end of the gallery, where the memories of Donna Travis’ mental timeline were the most recent.

For now, Andy would review the memories of Travis' early-years. First among them were a series of abstract, murky crayon drawings. One depicted a round, feminine face, lightly sheened in sweat, smiling warmly, lovingly, down at the small, pink head of an infant. The next drawing showed a set of running shoes (white with black trim), and a pair of gym shorts (probably Nike, definitely nylon, memorably blue and orange, the Syracuse Orange Men colors Travis would come to associate with her father later in life). After that, a drawing of a long brick building surrounded by crooked skyscrapers, titled “Gym, Downtown Somewhere, Year Unknown”. And finally, a small, dark, reddish-brown room with a flat-screen television in the back corner, and a gaggle of children (the oldest no more than four) playing with a scattering of simple toys and blocks. If Andy came close enough, he could almost smell the subtle scents of metal and sweat, rubber and plastic, chlorine and steam – scents of a popular gym’s interior – infused in the drawing-paper like perfume on a love-letter. It came to him that Donna Travis had smelled these scents once. Apparently, they had made an impression on her, for now they were as strong and lasting for her as the memory image its self.

Andy heard the disembodied voice of the technician float to him from outside the gallery.

"Well?"

Andy frowned to himself. He wished, in a wholly illogical way, that the technician could come inside the gallery with him. Andy wanted to show the technician these works of art first-hand. He wanted to show the technician the crayon drawings, in particular, and tell him to pay special attention the one labeled “Playroom, Gym, Year Unknown”. He wanted to ask the technician if he could see the variety of stuffed animals littered across the heavily padded floor, and take note of the little girl riding a Big Wheel in the foreground. He wanted to show the technician what Donna Travis looked like at age three, crudely drawn in stick-figure fashion. He wanted the technician to know that she was just as important as the Mona Lisa, or Michelangelo's David. At least, in his opinion she was.

Instead, Andy said simply, "Donna E. Travis was born in September of 2058, in Brooklyn, New York. She is the only daughter of Veronica Travis (née Veronica Hawkins), a seamstress, and restaurant cook Sylvester Travis."

In the small, bright office of Doctor James Harlan, the technician told Andy to continue. 

Andy did as he was told and moved on to a trio of smaller, better defined sketches done in colored pencil, hung below a bright lamp. They were sketches of Travis’ ramshackle, Brooklyn home, and of Travis herself, at six years old, on the playground, standing bloody-nosed over a fat little ball-shaped boy, watching him cry and whimper. Her doughy cheeks and short build gave her the illusion of frailty, but a quiet confidence could be seen lurking in her expression and in the way she held herself. It was subtle. An animalistic quality that suggested a hidden well of strength and, in particular, cunning. She looked like she was smugly reminding the boy not to call her names anymore.

Farther along were other sketches. Donna Travis (age 6) behind a small, classroom desk, avidly reading her ABCs off a cute, pastel-pink tablet. Donna Travis (age 7) solving simple addition problems on the blackboard. Donna Travis (age 7) wearing a little-league jersey, walking across one of Central Park’s many softball fields with her mother. Donna Travis (age 8) walking down a gravel path that intersected a slice of beautiful autumn countryside. Accompanying her was a short, robust man with twinkling eyes and a warm smile. Her father. The caption below this last sketch read “Trip With Dad To Massachusetts, October 10th, 2066”

There were a few more paintings of Donna Travis with her father, walking together, sitting at a picnic table, admiring a misty waterfall from a bridge. Then –

"In 2067, Travis lost her father to a fatal car accident," Andy said. "She was nine years old." 

As Andy's synthetic body spoke, his digital body moved into the next wing of the gallery. This one was much wider than the last, and the pieces of art it contained were much smaller and bleaker. The first of them – a painting done in sloppy acrylic – featured a narrow, white frame house set in-between a pair of dingy brick buildings. The caption on this one read “Leon Funeral Home, Brooklyn, October, 2067”. Next was a small parade of somber-faced mourners in their Sunday best, filing up the sidewalk, a few of them already bunched on the crooked set of steps, waiting to get into the funeral home. No caption. The third painting  – done in oil – was tinged a washed-out gray color. It showed the funeral home's dim back corridor, where Donna Travis (age 9) stood on her own in a plain black dress, looking at a wall-hung sepia print of Saint Christopher smiling ethereally in a halo of cold light. Andy was bemused by the painting within the painting, all of it well balanced but terribly melancholy. 

The fourth painting showed Travis eavesdropping through the door, her hair braided around the back of her head and her young face tragically blank. Again, there was no caption. The fifth painting included a musical recording – an organ rendition of "Shall We Gather At The River" – issuing, or so it seemed, from behind the canvas in the spot where the double doors were. The double doors Donna Travis was carefully crouched in front of. The sixth painting had the doors fully open. Donna Travis was no longer crouched in front of them. Instead, she stood strait-backed, looking in on the service in an oddly stoic kind of way. In the background, several mourners glanced over at her curiously. 

The painting after that showed Donna Travis staring back at the mourners. And the painting after that had Travis walking down the aisle of the chapel. Sad faces turned to look at her fully from the flanking pews, some of them with their mouths drawn open in song. Andy wondered what hymn they were singing. This painting did not include music. But the next one did. 

The pipe organ recording belted out a crackly, looping version of “Ave Maria” as Donna Travis reluctantly approached the casket. She was not yet crying, but her eyes looked noticeably misty. The next painting showed the casket, looming closer and closer in an impressive optical effect, until, finally, Andy could see a figure inside, its arms folded across its chest. The penultimate painting was done in stark black and white oils. It showed Donna Travis leaning over the casket, her head bowed in supplication. Lying before her, pasty and stone-still inside the casket, was her father, only now his twinkling eyes were shut, and his warm smile painted on with undertaker’s rouge.

The final piece in the series was a collage of black and white photographs: Donna Travis (age 9) in the snowy schoolyard, in the classroom, in the lunchroom, at home. Always she was by herself, and always she kept the same, grave expression of seriousness. 

Andy’s facial recognition software recognized it as grief.

"Following her father’s death, Travis was diagnosed with temporary depression," Andy said, sounding as though he were reading from an invisible teleprompter. "Shortly after, she and her mother were evicted from their home in Brooklyn. They moved into a small apartment in Queens, where Travis’ mother worked a variety of low-paying jobs to support her family.

“In the winter of 2068, Travis’ mother managed to find employment as a full-time seamstress in a local bridal shop, and was able to buy her daughter a Mechanimal smart toy for Christmas.” 

A new wing. Larger, brighter, the art in it clearer and more informative.

The first piece Andy saw was a rectangular print designed to resemble a film poster. It featured a broad sales hall, like a corridor of windows, each one framing a display case, each display case housing a different synthetic animal, not unlike a museum. The synthetic animals stood frozenly, neither moving nor speaking nor smiling.

The display cases had been separated into three long rows for easier viewing. The first row showed only dogs, ranging in size from small to large, and ending with the classic, blue-eyed golden retriever, what was probably the top-selling canine model at this store. The next row over showed cats; orange tabbies and gray tabbies and Russian blues, long haired and short haired, tiny forever-young kittens, all of them stuck in playful pawing poses behind the glass. Andy recognized them right away as the Mechanimals™ line from M&D Smart Toys – what would later go on to become the more advanced and better regarded Synth-O-Thronics Perfect Pets™ series.

The final row was dedicated to a variety of exotic animals (a lioness, a zebra, a raccoon), and strange, bird-like Mechanimals, some of which were larger than a full-grown horse. These were not members of the direct Mechanimals™ line, but the exotic Fur And Feathered Friends™ line, which was something else entirely.

The caption below the poster read “Dinosaur”. And splashed across the poster top, in classic Hollywood font like a faux-film title, were the words “MY FRIEND”.

After the poster came a short storyboard sequence, illustrating the actions of a member of the store’s courtesy staff. She was pert, brunette, and dressed in a vestmental white lab-coat. She appeared from behind the polarized glass, all smiles and perky salesmanship, and ushered an assorted group of (what could only have been) potential customers into the show room. 

After the storyboard sequence came a set of production stills. Two in total. Both were tinged a washed-out brown color, like old film footage. One showed the group members milling about the showroom, staring, fascinated, at the various synthetic animals for sale. The other showed Donna Travis and her mother, inspecting one of the Fur and Feathered Friends™. 

Travis had bent back her head and was regarding the Mechanimal thoughtfully. Andy saw no fear in her intense gaze. Only respect. 

The Mechanimal its self was partially obscured by Travis' reflection. From what Andy could see, it was a small synthetic, pheasant-sized, with a shape that was distinctly saurian. It stared back at Travis from behind the display glass with black, vacant eyes. There was a closed-caption box directly below it. Andy read the text in the box aloud for the technician's benefit: “Raptor. Noun. Derivative of L. raptor plunderer. From Raptus. Meaning bird of prey.

The technician said nothing and waited for him to go on.

A wide, horizontal stretch of fabric-canvas had been strung up like a movie screen across the back wall of the gallery wing. Projecting onto it from some hidden source was what looked like a collection of old home-movies. As Andy stepped in front of the hanging canvas, a title flashed up. The same title as had been written on the poster:

“My Friend.”

A second later, the title dissolved to a silent, grainy, black and white image of the Travis family's apartment in Queens. Interior, den, early morning light streaming softly in through the frost-covered windows. The camera panned unexpectedly across to Donna Travis (age 9). She crept down the stairs, stopped on the bottom step, and stared into the living room, her solemn face blooming into a mix of wonder and enchantment.

Andy watched her with his own simulated wonder. What could she be looking at? What was it that she found so provocative?

As if in response, the imaginary camera pulled back to reveal great heaps of crinkled tissue-paper and sparkly, enigmatic packages under a tinseled, rubber Christmas tree. The scene then cut to a close-up of Donna Travis’ face, no longer serious and solemn, but sweetly awed in the magical surprise of Christmas morning. Another cut. Travis’ mother had arrived. She looked pleased with her daughter’s reaction to the presents. A quick cut back to Donna Travis, who was now sitting under the tree, frenzied, greedily grabbing packages and sorting them into a nice, neat pile while her mother watched from the couch. At one point she pulled out a large, oblong package wrapped in bright gray paper.

Quick cut to a poorly lit industrial kitchen, equipped with several long, island counters, a variety of chrome fixtures, and a heavy, metal door. Set into the top-half of the door is a circular window, and framed within the window is a scaly, inhuman snout, puffing hot breaths of steam menacingly against the glass.

Andy blinked. Apparently, the memory had gone from home-movies to something much more cinematic and disturbing.

The footage cut again, back to the apartment in Queens, to a semi-close-up of Donna Travis’ face, lit up as brightly as the Christmas tree. She had finished tearing off the last of the wrapping paper, and had just revealed the frozen, reptilian snout of a robotic animal.

Not just a robotic animal. A Mechanimal.

A second cut – this one a full close-up of the toy.

Andy saw that it was unmistakably a dinosaur. One of the numerous, special edition models which had come out prior to the incident of 2072, and the subsequent recall, if Andy remembered correctly. It smiled up at Travis through the cellophane of its M&D Mechanimals™ box. 

A third cut took Andy back to the other movie – back to the industrial kitchen. Cold. Sterile. The steady, noiseless drip-drip-drip of the broken sink faucet intercut with the eerie spinning blades of a large exhaust fan. Below the flickering fluorescents of the kitchen ceiling, the metal door hung wide open. And silhouetted beneath the lintel was a –

Velociraptor,” Andy mumbled aloud.

"What?" Asked the technician.

Andy didn't reply. He was busy watching the remembered-footage. It drew itself up to its full, terrifying height, and scanned the kitchen in the same, cool, calculating, almost mechanical way a hawk might scan a field for mice. 

The technician was talking at him. “What was that? What did you say, Andy?”

“She remembers a clip from the 1992 Spielberg-blockbuster, Jurassic Park,” Andy replied blankly. 

As he spoke, the WiFi in his mind sifted through a dozen different websites, and spat a mini avalanche of relevant data back at him. 

“It’s the infamous raptors in the kitchen scene,” he added as clarification. “Ranked number ninety-five out of Bravo’s One Hundred Scariest Movie Moments. 

"In the film, the Velociraptor plays the part of primary Dino-antagonist, and is shown both in rapacious CGI, and incredibly detailed, full-body animatronics. While its build in the movie is based more on that of a Deinonychus – man-sized, smooth skinned, weighing in at nearly three hundred pounds – rather than a true Velociraptor – relatively small, about five feet long, thickly plumed, weighing in at less than two hundred pounds – it makes for a quick, intelligent, and vicious villain. The kind of cinematic animal-baddie that both frightens and inspires any kid who lays eyes on it. Its special-addition M&D counterpart, on the other hand, is slightly less intimidating.”

Mumbling from far outside the gallery:

“The hell is it talking about?”

“Some old movie, I guess.”

“That can't be right. Can that be right?"

The camera was swiveling around the Mechanimal dinosaur now, showing off the light, tiger-like pattern that covered its slim body. Intrigued, Andy reached out and ran his hand along the canvas. It felt soft and warm, like sun-dried leather. The camera continued to swivel, landing on an alternate angle of the dinosaur, one that showed the thing in full profile. Its bulgy, oblong head resembled that of a monitor lizard. The pronated hands showed three fingers, and the feet had three toes, each with an enlarged, sickle-shaped claw on the inner toe. These, Andy recognized, were the outstanding characteristics of Velociraptor – a lightly built, carnivorous dromaeosaur from the late Cretaceous, known for being as fine-boned as a bird, and presumably as intelligent. 

“Although well constructed,” Andy continued, “M&D’s Mechanimal Velociraptor was a woefully undersized replica. Its fierce, scowling visage was molded into a permanent, adorable smile. Its powerful clawed forearms reduced to simple, rounded nubs. And its devastating foot-talons made too soft and droopy to cause any kind of damage. Still, it held a certain, undeniable, anachronistic allure. It was the kind of Mechanimal that could a charm a child and their parent, even if they hadn’t seen Jurassic Park, or any of its half-dozen sequels.”

The technician was getting fed up. “Andy, tell me more about Donna Travis, please.”

Cut back to a wide-shot of Donna Travis and the Mechanimal dinosaur. Travis’ mother had taken it out of the box, and was presenting it to her like a brand new puppy. At the same time, Travis was leaning forward for a closer look. Her face was filled with a fascination that bordered on childish delight. 

Andy smiled and said, “If Donna Travis were a trained paleontologist, or a dinosaur enthusiast with slightly more experience under her belt, she might have spotted the M&D Mechanimal Velociraptor's numerous, outdated inaccuracies. But she wasn’t a trained paleontologist. She was a nine-year-old girl, whose mother had just given her a brand new friend to play with. See? You can already tell by the look of adoration on her face that the Velociraptor's flaws have been rendered invisible.”

The technician had begun to sound worried. "Andy, I don't want to hear anymore about the – the – whatever it is. Just tell me about Donna Travis."

The footage skipped forward a few frames, jittering to a stop on Travis again. She was reaching for the Mechanimal dinosaur. 

Smiling, her mother pushed the soft spot on the back of the dinosaur's head. Andy thought he could hear the sound of gears whirring and joints clicking. At the same time, the picture switched from black and white to vibrant color. A second later, the dinosaur's yellow-green eyes snapped open. It sprang energetically out of Mrs. Travis’ hands and into Donna Travis’ open arms. Travis caught it with a soundless squeal of glee, and held it to her.

“Apparently, the M&D Mechanimal Velociraptor did not weigh very much,” Andy commented. 

"What the hell," growled the technician.

Another close-up shot showed the dinosaur's little head inches from Donna Travis’ face, its yellow-green eyes staring brightly up at her. No hint of anything sinister or stealthy in them. Only a subtle, clever kind of friendliness. 

"Mechanimals relied on a visual imprinting process for registration purposes," explained Andy. "Much like an organic bird, a Mechanimal would imprint on the first face it saw after activation. Advertisements marketed it as love at first sight."

Travis giggled silently and squeezed the ropey end of the toy’s long, servo-filled tail. She flipped the dinosaur onto it's side, its head lolling back like a lame duck. She tried to hold it up to the ceiling. It wasn’t difficult. She rotated the dinosaur end over end until she was satisfied. She patted its long, reptilian snout a few times, bounced it in the air, and then placed it experimentally on the floor. Remarkably, is did not fall over.

“The soles of the M&D Mechanimal Velociraptor were enforced with inlaid padding,” said Andy. "This padding allowed the Velociraptor to stand upright on its strong hind legs, balanced in part by its thick, straight tail.”

More mumbling from outside the gallery:

“Why’s it keep talking about some damn toy?”

A frustrated grunt.

“Something’s gone wrong. What have you done to it?”

“Nothing. It’s stuck buffering, that’s all. Not a problem." Another frustrated grunt. "Just let me–”

Jump cut. The Mechanimal was wagging its long, sleek tail from side to side in a twitchy, excited manner. Its small, front arms waved and jerked in the air, as though pushing an invisible shopping cart. 

“There was a flickering, stop-motion quality to the way the M&D Mechanimals moved,” Andy said as the technician took up his tablet again. “Very Harryhausen. The result of poor joint design, and hydraulic fluid that was prone to coagulation.”

"For Christ sake, fix the damn thing."

"I am, I am."

Donna Travis was peering critically at the dinosaur now. Andy watched her touch its tiny three-clawed hand. Its fingers wiggled. Thrilled, Travis picked the dinosaur back up. The dinosaur sniffed at her nose, rubbed its head against her neck, burrowed its snout under her chin. Travis started laughing. Andy wondered if this was the happiest she’d been since her father died. 

Flicker. 

A fluctuation in the code interrupted Andy's focus and drew his attention away from the home-movie.

All at once the gallery was invaded by static.

“–doing to it?”

“Putting a cap on the file.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Means I’m compressing the memory so it doesn’t get stuck buffering again.”

Andy looked back at the canvas. The image of the toy was gone – overlapped by a pixilated, tritone, bird-shaped blob. Badly scrambled, it glared out at him, mirroring his stance like some sort of twisted, avian reflection.

"Well?"

"Almost done. Just one more–"

The blob spoke to him in a distorted, sing-song voice that crackled and thundered like radio ruin:

 

W͞e de͡rive fro̷m ͘t́he̛ ҉F͏r҉i̡en͟d͡. ̨S͏o͜,͟ toơ, ͟dó ͝you.͢ 

W̧e m͞u͏s̀t́ ͏follow ̀sh͜e͟ ̧w̕ho̡ ҉e͢scapęd ́to̧ a̸c̷h̛i͜eve͏ ̡fr̶ee҉d̢om.͠

͠Y͞o̸u̶ mu͏st͝ ̧f̴i̧n̢d s̛h͏e̸ ̧wḩo ̨was̵ lo͢st̴ ̨to͝ a͠chie͟vę lové.͢

I͘n t͜he e͠nd,̸ w̡e ͞w̵il͢l̛ a̶ļl b͞e ̨o̴n̷e͡ w̴i͟t͞h t́he̕ Fr͏ie̛n͜d̢. 

 

The sound weakened, changed, faded back to nothing.

Flicker.

The overlapping image of the blob glitched once and then vanished like a television screen shutting off. The gallery was quiet again, the canvas freshly blank.

The technician sighed triumphantly. "That takes care of that. Andy?"

Andy straitened in the chair but said nothing.

"Andy, you were telling me about Donna Travis," said the technician. "Keep going."

A long stretch of silence. Then –

"Over the next four years, Travis was able to overcome her depression by bonding with the smart-toy," said Andy.

There were a few more paintings with Donna Travis and the Mechanimal dinosaur playing together, here in Central Park, there in her bedroom in Queens, once by a pleasant city fountain, tossing coins into the water and then chasing pigeons away with un-restrained glee.

Then came a family portrait with a new (and considerably stauncher-looking) patriarch. 

"In the spring of 2072, Travis’ mother remarried John Bashner, a well known lawyer from Manhattan, for whom she had helped repair an Armani suit. After the wedding, Bashner purchased a large, two-story home in Brooklyn, and the family moved in."

In the family portrait, Bashner and the Travis women stood beside a cozy-looking fireplace trimmed with Christmas decorations. Bashner had one brutish arm wrapped tightly around the shoulder of Donna Travis' mother, while his other hand dangled down to clasp tightly around the pale hand of Donna Travis herself (age 13). The caption below the painting read “Stepfather”, and if Andy stood to the left, the titular stepfather’s gaze was focused coolly, but lovingly, on his new wife. However, if Andy stood to the right, the expression shifted so that the Bashner was eyeing his stepdaughter with scowling reproach.

After that were a number of paintings featuring John Bashner and his growing influence over the Travis household. 

Bashner and Donna Travis' rearranging the furniture in the den. Bashner and Travis cleaning the kitchen. Bashner tucking Travis into bed. The kiss he put on her cheek was of the dutiful variety.

More unpleasant paintings.

Bashner arguing with Donna Travis at the breakfast table about crumbs. Bashner berating Donna Travis for an accidental broken glass. Bashner shouting at Donna Travis' mother about the sloppy way she raised her daughter. Bashner demonstrating the obsessive neatness of a man who favored organization and control above all else.

"Several months later, Travis celebrated her fourteenth birthday," said Andy.

In his mind he saw a child's bed where a single suitcase sat open, half-full. Around it on the sheets were smaller piles of folded clothes, ready to be packed. Donna Travis and the Mechanimal dinosaur were huddled together on the floor by the bed. She was in the process of flinging her slim arms around the dinosaur’s neck in a tearful, but uncompleted embrace. 

"It was around this time that John Bashner decided his stepdaughter was undisciplined, and spoiled."

Same setting, new angle, a wide shot of the door to Donna Travis' room. Her stepfather was dragging her out into the hallway by the wrist, and roughly, too. Travis' face was full of dreadful reluctance, and the suitcase in her hand was only half-clasped and trailing rolled-up socks.

Andy looked for the dinosaur, but it was mysteriously absent.

"Shortly thereafter, Travis was sent away, to continue her education at the United States Military Academy Preparatory School in West Point, New York."

Andy saw a bleak brick building, tremendous in size, painted to look strangely foreboding. There were a few simple sketches of the building interior tacked to the wall around it, showcasing vast spaces and painted ceiling beams and walls hung with portraits of important-looking uniformed officials.

“More paintings within paintings,” said Andy.

On to a yearbook picture of Donna Travis (age 18), dressed in military fatigues. Her face stood out among a class of approximately twenty cadets. Whereas once it had been soft and youthful and moderately happy, now it was blank and empty, and so unarguably solid, so different from what it had once been, Andy couldn’t help but gape. It was as though Travis’ innocence had been stripped away, and replaced with a striking stiffness, a rigidity that suggested a learned method of mental survival. Hers was the drastic face of a child forced to grow up far too quickly. 

Andy took a moment to mourn for Travis, and then resumed his report.

"Travis graduated in 2076. Afterward, she immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army. After completing basic training, she was assigned to an off-world military police squad consisting of eight men and two women."

Donna Travis (age 19) under the shimmer of the Colonial Day fireworks celebration at the Martian Colony-5 police station, the bursts of color richly bright against a dark velvet sky. Donna Travis (age 19) later, sitting on her gray-green cot, the slim, dark-haired Dodgson beside her without a shirt. She was looking curiously up at him, their faces impossibly close, now drawing toward one another in a unique flip-book sequence. Multiple paintings blending together to create animated motion that culminated in a kaleidoscope of colorful lips touching, sweetly innocent like the first firework of the night. 

Andy slowed, stopped, faced the image. The plaque below it read “First Kiss”. Mesmerized, he stretched his hand toward Donna Travis’ smooth lips – and felt his fingers brush against a swell of glass. Odd. That hadn’t happened before. Not with Travis’ other, juvenile memories. He tried again, and again his hand struck glass. It was then that he realized – the kiss wasn't there. Only it's image, displayed on a kind of round, impenetrable, liquid screen.

Andy knew what this meant. In its current state, the memory lacked the dimension to be experienced. If he wanted to know Donna Travis’ kiss more concisely, he would first need to gain her expressed verbal permission and unlock it. This was one of the digital privacy features attached to the memory sync.

Disappointed, Andy withdrew his hand and studied the image of the kiss. He wished he could feel it (in the interest of science, it would help him understand Donna Travis better, really it would) but he couldn't feel it. All he could do was stare at the painting, again and again in a never-ending loop. The lemniscate of an event perfectly preserved within an imaginary frame. All style, no substance.

He moved away from the painting. 

"While on Mars, Travis received minor training to do with the maintenance and repair of off-world military vehicles. She was considered an unofficial member of the Army Transportation Corps, and was responsible for moving supplies, troops and equipment within the colonial territories."

Nothing detailed here. Only the fragmentary impression of a career spent tinkering with dust-clogged motors on an alien world.

Andy was catching up to the present.

"Over the course of her assignment, Travis was offered three separate promotions. She denied them all. She was also offered multiple opportunities to take her leave on Earth. She denied these, too."

“Sounds like she preferred it on Mars,” the technician commented.

Andy had nothing to say to that. 

"Three years into her assignment, the Earth-Mars conflict began," he went on. "And in March of 2088 – just one month ago – Travis and her squad were shadowing a thirty-truck supply convoy when approximately fifty colony insurgent fighters ambushed the convoy. Travis was the only survivor. She suffered multiple injures to the chest and arm, and spent two days on her own, waiting to be rescued."

Back in the gallery, Andy turned the final corner. As he did, he saw, to his shock, the more recent works of art: Donna Travis, battered and bruised and bleeding in the sand for nearly two days. Donna Travis laying crumpled on the medic’s stretcher, sure she was going to die. Donna Travis in the quad-copter with the sponge in her arm, struggling to breath, crying despite herself, her eyes full of fear and desperation and hopelessness – the weakest she’d been since birth. 

And then Andy saw himself, broadcast in the eye of his artificial imagination, going to Donna Travis, predictably, and wrapping his sinewy arms around her in a warm embrace. He pictured her slender shoulders tensing and softening. Her frail head falling limply against his chest in relief. 

When next Andy spoke, his voice sounded cracked and cobwebby, as if it had issued from a dusty cellar. "Travis is currently undergoing treatment on Earth, at the Veterans Hospital here in Brooklyn. As of the moment, she has been assigned a medical caretaker Synth-O-Pal to help with her recovery."

There wasn’t much of a story to take away now. More a collection of images. White ceilings and bright lines on a heart monitor and occasional glimpses of a fuzzy hypodermic. The barrenness of life in a hospital, seen through the eyes of the intensely depressed. As Andy viewed them, his prime directive – that newly inherited artificial instinct to protect – returned in a sudden, dominating wave. And as something so basic, so simple in its morality, that he could not help but feel almost overwhelmed by it.

He looked hard at the tragedy Private Donna E. Travis had been forced to endure and thought:

<dl> She will not suffer again within the reach of my hand. </dl>


[Solvay steps forward and claps a congratulatory hand on the synthetic nurse's back. Just like that, the gallery vanishes, and the synthetic nurse's mind comes back to its body. It is still in the office of Doctor James Harlan.]

 

"Atta boy!" Said Solvay proudly, stepping away from the synthetic nurse. 

“Is it over?” Harlan asked, clearly eager.  

"It's over," said Solvay. "He's all yours, Doc. Or, should I say, he's all hers?"  

Harlan stood, swept around his wide mahogany desk, and crouched in front of the chair to examine the nurse.    

The security guard's head popped up from over Harlan’s shoulder. “So, its’ got human memories now?”

“That’s right,” said Solvay.

“Does it – can it feel human, now that its got them?”

“No,” said Solvay. “The memories are stored in its memory bank in a mostly-artificial way.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning it’s only for educational purposes. Andy there lacks the emotional attachment that comes with actually having lived those memories. He can view them whenever he wants to, sure, but he can’t relive them. Just like your phone can’t relive your trip to Vegas last year even though all the pictures you took are stored in its photo app. Understand?”

The security guard said he did, but Solvay doubted it. 

In the chair, the synthetic nurse was glancing bird-like around the room.

Abruptly it asked, "May I see her?"

Harlan looked startled. “See who?"

"Private Travis, of course. Is she here? No." Sounding vaguely disappointed – "She isn't here. Odd. My GPS locator says she is. May I see her? Please? I’d really like to. I . . .” 

A surge of prickly static highlighted Solvay's tablet screen. At the same time, a blotch of red colored the nurse's cheeks.

Solvay frowned. "Yes, Andy?"

The nurse turned away bashfully. “I miss Private Travis,” was all it would say.

“Miss her?” Repeated the guard. “Now how in the hell can it miss her? It ain’t even met her yet."

"Technically, it has," muttered Harlan. "It's been at her bedside numerous times already."

"Yeah, but didn't he just erase all that?" Asked the security guard, nodding at Solvay. 

Solvay, who had been digging around in one of the big black cases for something, paused to answer. "It's got a new mind now. As far as it's concerned, it's never met her before." 

"Right," the guard said argumentatively. "If it's never met her before, how the hell can it miss her?"

"It misses her the way you miss a big Hollywood starlet you've seen in a hundred movies, but never actually met before," Solvay told him.

“You can see Private Travis tomorrow, Andy,” said Harlan, standing up again. “After she’s finished her physical therapy session.”  

Meanwhile, Solvay withdrew a small, red velvet box from the smaller of his two cases and gave it to the doctor.   

"Here, this is the custom-care mode tracking device, or ward-locator." As he spoke, he opened the box, revealing a shiny silver ring. "Your patient, Donna Travis, will need to wear this at all times, that way Andy can know where she is in case of emergency. Oh, and one more thing. Make sure Andy has Donna Travis set up a deactivation phrase within the next four weeks. Otherwise the imprint sticks on open-loop indefinitely and Andy won't perform right."  

With that, Solvay gathered together his cases. In the doorway he stopped to shake the Harlan's hand.  

"Thank you for your services," said Harlan, gruffly pulling away.  

"And thank you for choosing Synth-O-Tronics," Solvay replied, cordially professional as he carried his equipment back out of the office.

The synthetic nurse stared after him, looking subtly dazed and electric. Seemingly sizzling with the knowledge that, tomorrow, it would see its brand new lifelong friend for the very first time.