I Will Love You Forever
It never ceased to amaze him that she could cook. He didn’t come from a world where women cooked. (Certainly, his mother never had!) He loved to watch her doing it; it looked like some kind of conjuror’s trick. From an armload of ingredients that did not, to his un-kitchened eye, even look particularly edible, she would assemble (at astonishing speed) stew, or stroganoff or bread. And it was always delicious. Which was more than you could say for the food at the trendy restaurants his mother had always insisted on trying.
She was making pizza, which touched him hugely. He would have expected something fancier, what with a guest in the house, but instead she was going with his favorite. Sliced onions, peppers and olives fanned out around her fingertips, like a magician’s deck of cards; mounds of diced tomatoes and grated cheese stood ready; the freshly made pesto sauce still foamed.
He could have watched her all night, but eventually she looked up from rolling the dough and said, “So?”
He knew what she meant, of course, but he wasn’t going to admit it. “What, so?”
Once the dough was rolled, assembling the pizza took seconds. “That Kim,” she said, stooping to slide it into the oven. “He seems nice.”
Kim isn’t nice!, he wanted to shout. Instead, he shrugged and turned away. She wasn’t pushy. If he stalled she might back off.
She sighed and continued, “At least that’s what I thought when I went out to the garden. But you looked pretty upset when I got back.” So apparently she thought it was too important to back off. She offered him a teasing smile. “Really, our first visitor in all these years, and you manage to get into a fight with him. What am I to do with you?”
“It wasn’t a fight.” He slid down from his stool and headed toward the dining room. “Guess I better set the table.”
“Please, David. What did he say?” She was chopping again, lettuces and radishes this time. Her voice was very soft. “I know you don’t want to talk about it. But I think I need to know.”
“It was nothing important,” he snapped. And then, because he’d snapped at her–and he never snapped at her, how could he when she was so perfect?–he saw that the reason he was snapping was because he was lying to her. He took a very deep breath and said, “Kim says you don’t love me. That you can’t love me—because you’re not human.”
She stopped chopping, even with the salad unfinished, and the silence was riveting. He didn’t have to turn around to know how she looked, with the knife poised halfway up, her mouth frozen slightly open and her eyes slightly shut, so focused on what she was thinking that she forgot to move. He froze with her, waiting for her to come back.
Finally the knife came down again, but only once. Then she set it gently down on the cutting board and let her arms drop to her sides. “I see,” she sighed, and took a very long pause before adding, “Did he offer you transport?”
“What? For God’s sake…” He turned and went back to her, grasped her arms–but gently, he didn’t want to hurt her. She looked up at him. She looked human. Her eyes were green, with tiny gold flecks. Gold flecks to match her skin, he’d always joked, because her skin was an exotic tawny shade–an unusual color, but not so unusual that it didn’t look human. “Kati, how can you say such a thing?”
“But it’s obvious,” she answered. “Why would he mention that I’m not human, unless he was explaining why he wouldn’t give me transport? And why would he have to explain why he wouldn’t give me transport unless he was at least willing to take you back?”
He stared at her. He often forgot, in the day to day routine, just how inhumanly smart she was. It gave him chills to hear her pluck facts out of the air, from such tiny observations and seemingly tenuous chains of logic. But she was always right. Finally he managed to answer, “It doesn’t matter what he offered. I’m not interested.”
She picked up the knife and resumed preparing the salad. “Please don’t make any rash decisions, David. Certainly not on my account. Think it over carefully. Who knows how many years it will be before you get another chance to go home? If ever? This isn’t a good place for you, not conducive to human life. And you ARE human. You need to get away if you can.” She glanced up and her look was very sad. But level. God help him, she really meant it.
“This IS home,” he assured her. “It’s rough, yes, just a scouting post. But I’m here with you, and that makes it home. Now that we’ve got some fresh supplies, we can fix the place up, make it more comfortable, safer. Think what a difference that new generator and shield will make. You heard what Kim said. They’re still planning to build a colony here. So we just hold on until the colonists get here.”
She shook her head. “He said they MIGHT still build a colony here. Assuming his report doesn’t change their minds, which it probably will, since I can’t imagine it will be very positive. Even if they go ahead with it, it might not be for another fifty years. You can’t hold on for fifty years. Conditions here are too hostile; we can’t watch each other’s backs every minute of the day. We’ve been lucky so far, incredibly lucky. But the luckier we get, the more inevitable it becomes that someday the law of averages will cut in. You have to get out.”
“And leave you here alone?” He would have continued but she raised a finger to his lips.
“It’s different for me. You know that.”
He took a deep breath. He didn’t like to argue with her, but he had to win this one. “How different? Is Kim right, then? You don’t love me? You’re incapable of love?”
She froze again. When she finally answered, she sounded like a lost child. “So many people have told me so many times that I’m incapable of real love that I have to face the possibility they may be right. But nobody seems to be able to define love well enough for me to verify it for sure.” She drew in a deep, shaky breath. “You are the center of my world, my reason for continuing to function. Every minute of the day, I’m always listening for you, no matter what else I’m doing. My reward for working is seeing you pleased. I think that means I love you.”
He drew her into his arms. “Then you’re not different enough for it to matter. We stay together.”
She opened her mouth. “But David…”
He kissed her mouth closed again. “No ‘buts’. There’s nothing left for me to go back to by now anyway. And if I were capable of leaving you here alone, then I wouldn’t be human either.”
“Be that way, then,” she chuckled, burying her face in his chest. “I will love you forever.”
* * *
He woke–if you could really call it that–too groggy and disoriented to function, but driven by some desperate urgency. He had no idea where he was, and had no way to find out. He couldn’t see; he couldn’t hear; he couldn’t think; but still he knew that something was utterly, terribly wrong. He thought he opened his eyes, but everything stayed black, so black he couldn’t see his hand before his face, and when he tried to lift his hand to his face, just to see if he could see it, he couldn’t move his hand. Nothing else would move either. That scared him. He felt pressed on from every direction, as if he had somehow been buried alive. Was he even alive? Could he move enough to breathe? Blind and paralyzed and lost, he started to panic.
Then he heard a sound, a faint but distinctive beep, followed by a hiss, then another beep. Small as it was, the sound relieved most of his fear; it was familiar. It was the beep of a transport capsule alert; it meant that his oxygen intake had increased to abnormal levels. The hiss was the medical support system revving up to prepare a sedative. Suddenly he was not blind and paralyzed, but merely confined in a transport capsule. The only thing that still scared him was the hiss; he did NOT want to be sedated. So he sucked in all the air he could, and held it. And held it. And held it.
The beeping slowed and stopped. When he was sure that no further beeps were coming, he permitted himself to exhale slowly, just in time to prevent the system from becoming concerned that his oxygen intake had decreased to abnormal levels. He spent a few more minutes just breathing in and out, making sure that his respiration stayed level, trying not to worry. Why was he in a transport capsule? Was he still on his way to the assignment? Were all those years at the post with Kati just a transport dream? Not possible. He loved her too much. He remembered her too well. Dreams faded, whether they came from transport or normal sleep. But his memory of Kati grew only more vivid and detailed. Not a dream.
Some of the old skills came back to him. He didn’t have to lie in the dark and worry. “Visual feed, please,” he said, as clearly as his fuzzy, fat tongue would permit. A lighted screen jumped up in front of his face. It took a moment to focus his eyes on the swirl of brightly colored icons, dancing across the screen. Most of them were unfamiliar, so he just asked, “Where am I?”
The yellow icon that might (or might not) have been a cartoon of a smiling spaceship flashed. The other icons fled, and a ship’s schematic with registration cards slid in from one side. It was a minimal blueprint, but enough to clarify that he was on the Jolie Fille, a scout-and-inert-cargo vehicle. Despite considerable external scaffolding, the ship itself was very small; the area contained within life support consisted of a control console and a single room, with a wash-cabinet and sleeping drawer folded into one wall. And it was a small room. It made the scouting post look spacious. But there was a glowing red rectangle indicating where his capsule was.
“Itinerary?” he asked, and the blueprint slid right while a star chart slid in form the left. They were going to Earth; in fact they were nearly there. Which actually made sense. The transport capsule would have kept him knocked out for most of the trip. But it still didn’t explain what he was doing on a ship in the first place. Jolie Fille–wasn’t that the name of Kim’s ship?
Worth a try. “External audio link,” he said, and followed it up with, “Kim? Are you there?”
There was a startled squawk, and some unidentified noises. “Man, are you awake already? I’m sorry, I should have checked on you sooner.” There was movement; he was being hauled up into something like a seated position. His head was lifted, his neck was turned. Then the star chart flipped out from in front of him and he was back in the real world, looking out of a helmet with a raised visor.
Kim was right in front of him, apparently with one foot in the capsule with him, still hauling him awkwardly up until his back and head were approximately upright. With a shock, David realized he wasn’t even in a real transport capsule. Apparently Kim had just laid a storage locker horizontally on the floor, and jury rigged the space suit inside it to serve as a capsule. (Clever, thought David. Suits and capsules had a lot of functions in common.) Kim looked awful–pasty, baggy eyed and unshaven with hair sticking straight up, dressed only in boxers and a T-shirt. He looked like he’d just crawled out of his own transport capsule.
“What am I doing here?” demanded David.
Kim fell back and, since one leg was still in David’s storage locker, tripped and fell on his butt. Just as well–there wasn’t enough room behind him to fall down flat. He gazed mournfully up at David and opened his mouth several times. Finally he said, “You don’t know?” He sighed heavily and shook his head. “Okay, just how much do you remember?”
“I remember you coming to dinner,” answered David. “We had pizza. You offered to bring me back to Earth with you. I told you, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ You left. As I recall, I insisted on you leaving.”
“You don’t remember calling me back and saying you’d changed your mind?” Kim’s voice was so confused and forlorn that David found it hard to believe he could be lying.
“I did?” But he wouldn’t have!
“Yes! You said you had it all figured out, and you wanted to come!”
Figured all what out? David was suddenly stabbed by a flash of hope so sharp it was painful. “You mean I figured out how to get us both on board?” he burst out. “Thank God. Where’s Kati?” He tried to scramble out of the storage locker, but the locker was a tight fit, and space suits were not built for scrambling. Still, he leaned out and craned his neck in every direction. “Kati?” There was no sign of her. Maybe still in the transport capsule? There was one over against the far wall. But only one. Kim’s. Kim had had to jury rig his space suit into a second capsule. But Kati wasn’t human, she didn’t really need a capsule. But then, where was she? David turned slowly back to Kim, almost afraid to look at him.
Kim was blinking owlishly up at him. “Kati?” He shook his head and repeated the name, as if trying to remember where he’d heard it. “Kati?” Then comprehension dawned. “Oh, God, you mean the robot?”
“Tell me she’s here,” whispered David. “I wouldn’t have come without her. Never. Please tell me she’s here.”
Kim looked left and then he looked right. He hauled himself to his feet, and backed a little further away from David. But not very far. It was a very small room, and most of it was already occupied by furniture. He tried to smile. “You see anyplace I could be hiding your robot?” He waited while David absorbed that information. Eventually he continued, “Look, it… I mean she, was a very high quality piece. I can see how it would be a wrench to lose it… her. But look around. This ship was never meant for two, let alone three. It was all I could do to squeeze you in. The only way to bring… Kati along would have been to shut her down and dismantle her, and put her outside in storage.”
“She was a colony model. She wasn’t built for deep space,” said David faintly. “Your hull’s magnetic. Her memory would have been wiped before we even got clear of the system.”
“Exactly.” Kim attempted a smile. “That’s why we left her there. She said she would keep the post going, and prep for colonists. The company’s going to be thrilled–they really need a new colony, and at least the place was borderline habitable. Trust me, we’re both going to come out of this rich.”
David scarcely heard him. “I agreed to this?” Kim didn’t answer, just stared at him, so he continued, “Did you actually speak to me in person? Or just get a call?” Kati would have had no trouble faking the call. “And when you came to pick me up, I suppose I was already too sedated to talk?”
Kim bit his lip, and looked away. Then he seemed to think of something, and reached into a drawer. “She left you a message,” he said, pulling out a data coin. David was still mostly in the suit, so Kim plugged the coin into an input slot for him.
There she was on the screen, large as life, cocking her head with a rueful half-smile. “Please forgive me, David,” she murmured. “I know you must be angry, but I had to do it. You know I will love you forever.”
* * *
Once again, he woke in a transport capsule, but this time he knew exactly where he was. Just outside colony headquarters, in New Colonist Revival and Reorientation. The overworked staff was delighted to find that he already knew the drill and could clean up and move on to Processing on his own. Except, of course, he didn’t go to Processing. He went to Records. What he found was not pleasing. Fortunately he had his own records with him, so he tracked down the Registrar.
The Registrar looked a little uneasy, but attempted a confident show. “You must understand, Mr. Holmes, that we found the item in question abandoned. Our right of salvage was obvious, so we took possession.”
“Begging your pardon, Sir, but that is not strictly accurate,” David replied levelly. It was never a good idea to lose your temper with a either a lawyer or a chief administrator and the Registrar was both. “You found an item that appeared to you to have been abandoned. Your mistake is understandable, but the item was not, in fact, abandoned, only temporarily unguarded. Salvage rights do not, and never did, apply.”
“Unguarded? Come, Mr. Holmes, you left the planet. You were gone for years!”
“I do not see that the length of my absence is a relevant issue.” David plucked up a paper from the table. “Here is my deed of ownership. It does not appear to include any time limitations.” He paused, but not quite long enough to let the Registrar attempt a counter argument. “I was always expected back. Why not examine the item’s internal records? They will certainly document that it received instructions to prepare for my return.”
The Registrar shifted in his chair. His face grew more mask-like, which looked to David like he was getting very nervous. “I’m afraid that’s not possible, Mr. Holmes.”
David already knew that, but saw no reason to admit it to the Registrar. “Really? Why not? Surely checking the records is the obvious thing to do in a case of disputed possession.”
“The internal records are no longer extant.” David assumed a bewildered look, forcing the Registrar to continue. “You must understand, the colony was very gratified to acquire…” he paused and considered David’s face. “When we believed ourselves to have acquired such a valuable and productive asset. Starting a new colony is hard work, back-breaking work, I might even say. The item in question promised–and eventually–proved to be enormously useful, relieving our limited population of a large number of difficult tasks.”
“I imagine so,” purred David. “I certainly always found it so. But what has that to do with checking its internal records?”
There was a knock on the door, which then opened. Kati looked terrible. Most of her hair had fallen out, and a strip of skin was missing from the left side of her face, revealing a disturbingly non-human support structure. Her right arm had been replaced with a metal multi-tool. Her eyes will still green with gold flecks, but she looked at David with no recognition. She offered him a polite nod and turned her attention to the Registrar. “You sent for me, Sir?”
“I see you didn’t bother with maintenance,” snapped David.
“You mean,” the Registrar snapped back, “We didn’t bother with cosmetic maintenance. There was no need, once it had been reprogrammed for work more useful than service as a sex toy. It is in perfect working condition, and remains a prized asset to our community.”
David sucked in his breath and counted to ten. It was still never a good idea to lose your temper with a either a lawyer or a chief administrator. “You reprogrammed it? In and of itself, there’s no harm in some reprogramming; it was always a multi-function unit. But it’s beginning to sound like you didn’t just reprogram it, but erased its memory.” Without waiting for the Registrar to respond, he turned to her. “Kati, do you remember me?”
She turned and studied him carefully. “No, Sir, I’m afraid not. Is there some reason why I should?”
“You knew me before you were reprogrammed,” he told her. “My name is David Holmes.”
She remembered the name. He could tell, because she froze, just as she had always used to do when thinking too hard to waste processing time on social appearances. As always, he waited for her to come back. “David Holmes,” she mused, at last. “You are that same David Holmes who was my former owner?” He nodded. She smiled. “It is good to make your acquaintance, Sir, or perhaps I should say to renew our acquaintance. I regret that I have no memory of our time together, but the arithmetic makes plain that you were the longest association of my life. I hope I gave satisfaction–I no longer remember why we separated.” She laughed. It was exactly the laugh he remembered. “To be honest, I don’t even recall how we came to be together in the first place.”
“I won you in a card game,” he told her, and she laughed again. He had always loved that laugh. “And you didn’t just give satisfaction. You were perfect.” She smiled hugely, and something that looked exactly like a blush crept up over her right cheek. Her human simulation algorithms had always been superb.
He turned back to the Registrar. “I gather you did not keep a backup of the memories you erased?” The Registrar looked away, unable to hide his uneasiness. “That was careless of you. It could be construed as a deliberate attempt to conceal ownership. Certainly it leaves you with no legal record to support your salvage claim.” He smiled. “I, however, have clear documentation of ownership. I could sue. I would have to take the case back to Earth, of course, which would generate enough court costs to destroy this whole colony when I won.” The Registrar, he saw, had turned pale gray. “Unless we settle.”
“It is always better for all parties if an amicable settlement can be found,” whispered the Registrar.
“I’m not out for blood,” confessed David. “I just want my Kati back. You can start with restoring the cosmetics, and searching your files for a forgotten back-up.” He turned to Kati. She was looking uneasily between him and the Registrar. He smiled at her and she smiled back. “You know there’s always something left, even if you reformat the drive: a file tree with no files, a few nameless, unidentified jpegs. I’ll tell you everything I remember; maybe something I say will trigger a pointer. And if not… well, we’ll build new memories. Obviously, your behavioral programming is still intact. It’s still you in there.” She looked puzzled so he took her hand and squeezed. “Trust me–you deserve better than digging sewers and hauling trash.”
She cocked her head with that same rueful half-smile he knew so well. “But why are you doing this, Sir? Couldn’t you just get a new robot?”
He shook his head. “No, I couldn’t. It has to be you. I will love you forever.”
Michaele Jordan was born in Los Angeles, bred in the Midwest, educated in Liberal Arts at Bard College and in computers at Southern Ohio College. She has worked at a kennel, a Hebrew School and AT&T. She’s a bit odd. She lives now in Cincinnati with a grumpy cat, a long-suffering husband and many invisible playmates. Her first novel, Blade Light, was serialized in Jim Baen’s Universe. Her new novel, Mirror Maze, is on the stands now, thanks to the good people of Pyr Books.