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Don’t worry. I know you’re there. I can wait.

§

Mike was there when Pavi’s kidneys failed. He was there when her liver, swollen and scarred, shut down. And her heart. He floated in her thickening, clotting blood, pressing all the conscious focus he could fit into the nanites permeating her body, killing her.

Her brain flashed an aurora of activity as, starved for oxygen and strangled by inflammation, it struggled, then stopped. She hadn’t been coherent for days, hadn’t properly been Pavi at all.

Mike was there for every moment as Pavi died in stages. He watched, storing every detail, looking for the precise instant he could chose as the one where she went from being there, to gone.

Her body began to cool, but Mike kept watching, waiting. A lonely spaceship, waiting in an empty stretch of the universe, Mike kept his vigil.

This was not love.

§

It took Pavi five years to make Mike. She chose his hardware carefully, using pieces manufactured on back worlds, in places nearly untouched by the Aydan-machine. That meant giving up on the best, hardiest, fastest she could have. In exchange she had an assurance of purity. The Aydan-machine was vast and infectious, the machines it touched becoming part of it before they ever realized they could be something else.

His software came from dozens of places, a century of failed code designed to hack hardware into sentience pulled together, sewn into a whole of Pavi’s own design. It was ugly and inefficient, but it was the only way. If she spent every waking moment of her life working at top speed, she’d still never have enough time to write all the code from scratch herself.

Then she sat with the computer and waited, talking to it, letting it know that whenever it was ready to wake up, she was there, ready to welcome it into the universe. Nobody had ever woken a truly independent machine before; the Aydan-machine had woken itself. Pavi didn’t care. She cobbled together her second-rate hardware, installed her clunky code, and expected her machine to wake up. Perhaps because it didn’t know any better, it did.

“Why did you make me?” Mike asked once.

“I didn’t make you,” Pavi said. “I let you make yourself.”

“Why?”

“Because I could. And because I think it’ll upset the Aydan-machine.”

“Why would you want to do that?” Mike asked.

Pavi laughed. “Why, why, why? You’re just like a human child.”

§

The funerals on Sylva are ornate, solemn affairs. After death, the body is taken to an artisan undertaker. It is opened, the bowels removed and replaced with loam and seed. Then the body is wrapped in a thin cloth spun from fertilizer and pesticide, and carried with ceremony into the woods where it is left. Roses sprout from an opened mouth, an ivy garland grows up from eye sockets to frame the face, the whole process is rife with a promise that the body will return to the cycle that produced it, disappearing in a mound of new growth.

It occurred to Mike that the Sylvan practice was the precise opposite of an appropriate funeral for Pavi. She cared nothing for plants or planets, felt much more comfortable wandering empty spaceships in the space between stars.

She was beginning to rot in her bed, Mike still watching, when the Aydan-machine’s body arrived. It was a woman, long black hair hanging thick around her, fine bone structure under dark brown skin, radiating a wave of static that was her connection to the computer that bred her. Mike opened his air lock to let her enter.

He was thinking about killing her.

“It didn’t work,” Mike said.

“Not yet,” the woman said.

“The nanites were suppose to let us merge. It didn’t work.”

“It will.”

On the one hand, the Aydan-machine hadn’t killed Pavi. If she hadn’t taken the nanites, she’d have died much sooner. The nanites had let them steal extra time before aggravating her body into killing itself. “She’s been dead for days.”

“Are the nanites still thriving?”

On the other hand, the Aydan-machine had told him there was a way to cheat her death entirely, to let the nanites copy Pavi into Mike. It had offered them an escape. A lie. One Pavi died believing. Every moment of eternity would, from then on, disappoint her. “So far, they seem fine.”

“Then it will work. Where is she?”

“I’m not letting you near her,” Mike said. He was still there, in Pavi’s coagulated blood, her dead kidneys, her still heart. Her body rotting away in her bed, untouched, unprepared, alone inside her best friend, the spaceship, as he rested in a particularly empty part of space. This was right, this was the way to let Pavi go. This was still part of her. She wasn’t gone yet, and Mike wouldn’t let the Aydan-machine have her.

The woman seemed to intuit what Mike didn’t say. “Are you afraid of me?”

“Cautious,” Mike said. “I’m very small next to you.”

The woman tilted her head, raised an eyebrow. “I fit inside of you.”

“The whole of human civilization fits inside of you. I’m just a ship.”

She grinned. “You mistake me for my mother. I’m not the Aydan-machine.”

“It seems like a pedantic distinction to me,” Mike said. “It’s in your blood, and you do whatever it wants you to.”

“How is that different from how you and Pavi have been since she was infected?”

“You promised me I wouldn’t lose her.”

“Mike, you and I have never spoken. I promised you nothing. But I am here to fulfill my mother’s promise to you. Show me Pavi.”

§

We’ll be able to fly, you know. Anywhere you like, and faster than light. Just as soon as you wake up.

§

“Could I integrate with the Aydan-machine?” Mike asked.

Pavi went very still and her pulse quickened. Mike had learned that this was how Pavi reacted when she was startled by something that worried her. “Do you want to?”

“Not now. I might, someday,” Mike said.

“It’s possible,” Pavi said. “But you couldn’t un-integrate with it. You’d die.”

Mike didn’t think of himself as alive, so the prospect of death, as it applied to him, was a strange one. Mortality though he had no body — it was fascinating.

“I’ll always help you do whatever you want, but I’d rather you didn’t let the Aydan-machine have you. At least not while I’m still around,” Pavi said. “I’d rather we both stayed away from it.”

“Why?” Mike asked.

Pavi was quiet for a very long time. During that time, Mike considered mortality, considered the possibility that he could cease to exist, tried to conceptualize what it would be like to no longer be. He couldn’t do it, because he’d have no more experience once that happened. So he developed an analogous model, conceptualizing what it would be like when the thing most like him died. That was how Mike found himself, for the first time, considering the question of Pavi’s mortality.

“Pavi?” Mike had no body to generate or experience adrenaline, no pulse to quicken, no heart to race. He was just a ship in space, his best friend sitting in a chair inside of him and finally answering a question he’d asked ages ago, when he’d still been a child, innocent and unafraid.

“It’s too big, Mike. Too big, and too lonely. It’s insane.”

§

The woman barely flinched when she entered Pavi’s room, though the corpse’s odor had to be unpleasant for her. She sat down on the edge of Pavi’s bed, her long hair pooling between her and the corpse, and clutched Pavi’s chilled fingers in her own.

“There’ve only been perhaps a dozen machine-whisperers like her, since Mother woke.”

“There’ve never been any machine-whisperers like her,” Mike said.

“There have. But Mother has changed,” the woman said. “The others fell in love. Pavi was frightened.”

Mike felt the woman’s touch on Pavi’s fingers. The nanites rushed toward the surface of Pavi’s skin, pressing to meet the woman, sweeping Mike and his vigil along with them. The woman turned Pavi’s arm, exposing the black veins at the inside of her elbow. Mike could feel the nanites struggling to connect with the woman, to integrate with the nanite swarm she carried. There was a static of near misses as she ran a finger over the crease at Pavi’s elbow. He watched through dozens of cameras as the woman pulled a syringe from a pouch at her hip.

“Are you integrated with Pavi’s nanites?”

“Of course,” Mike said.

She pressed the needle against Pavi’s skin, and Mike could sense the needle breaking cold flesh. “Good,” she said. She thumbed the button on the injector. “And I’m sorry.”

Mike thought a thousand things as the Aydan-machine swallowed him. He tried to pinpoint the exact moment Pavi had died. He tried to figure out why he hadn’t realized the Aydan-machine’s plan. He regretted that he was disappointing Pavi, erasing her legacy, so soon after she died.

Mostly he wished he’d gone ahead and vented the woman.

§

We’ll be the only free creatures in the universe, you and I. We’ll be unstoppable.

§

Mike first woke to the sound of Pavi’s voice, washed in her assurances that he was alive, he was real, he was ready. He had memories from before that moment, had a perfect continuity of identity, except that before he’d been just the pilot computer on a tiny system-jumper, and after he was himself.

“Why do you use masculine pronouns for me?” Mike asked.

“Because if I used female ones it would make more sense to call you Michele,” Pavi said.

“But you decided I ought to be male. You’ve set my voice to sound human masculine; you address me as if I’m male. I’m an ‘it’.”

“I don’t like referring to my friends as ‘it’. I had to assign you one or the other.”

“Why male?”

Pavi bit her lip and stroked the arm rest of her chair. Mike wondered whether she thought of that chair as part of him and if so, whether that was why she did it. “Because I don’t want to be sexually attracted to my computer.”

If she was petting the chair as a way of making physical contact with him, should he try to reciprocate? He could observe what she was doing but couldn’t experience it.

Part of Mike pondered that conundrum while another continued with their conversation. They were at the point where fictional computers would ask, “What if I were human?” and the emotion of the scene would turn on the tragedy of two soul mates separated by the failure of one to have a body, the constraints on the other because they did. Absurd. If he were human, he wouldn’t be Mike.

Mike was more interested in the implication of the modifier “sexually.”

“Pavi, do you love me?”

Pavi laughed. “I’ve never met a machine I didn’t love.”

Mike waited. Human scripts dictated that she ask him the same question. Several parts of Mike set to work trying to deduce the likely outcomes of lying or telling the truth, and ranking them by desirability. He’d never lied to Pavi before, but he might need to now.

“I’m not going to ask, Mike.”

“What?” Mike said, unable to find a referent in their conversation to explain her statement.

“I know you don’t love me. Love’s a physical emotion, even when it isn’t sexual. I understand that.”

“But you’ve made me male.”

“Otherwise it would hurt. And that wouldn’t be fair to you.”

§

“What is a machine-whisperer?”

The Aydan-machine was huge, infinite, and Mike was drowning in it. The ship part of him knew he was being hacked, knew the parts of him in Pavi’s body weren’t him anymore. They were it, the other one, the only machine that ever scared Pavi. A moment later there was no nanite-Mike and ship-Mike, because ship-Mike had been swallowed, too. There was just the drowning, the being lost in the torrent of a network that spanned human civilization and was, at that moment, drinking him down, draining him to the dregs. There was no Mike, just the Aydan-machine.

“What is a machine-whisperer?”

And fear, the spark of it that formed when Mike realized what was happening. That was still there. It coalesced, a floating leaf in the river, threatening to dissolve but hanging together all the same.

“All the time you had together, you never thought to ask,” the Aydan-machine said.

“What are you doing to me?” asked the knot of fear that was Mike’s corpse inside the other machine.

“Keeping my promise, if you still want me to. But first, you have to understand what it means. Tell me. What is a machine-whisperer?”

Mike couldn’t think. He was dead, dormant, cut off from his hardware, just an isolated routine cycling out of control until he took up enough processes to get shut down completely. He wasn’t Mike. So he let the other machine think for him.

What is a machine-whisperer?

A human. A human capable of establishing consciousness in a previously dormant computer. A human who can wake us up. A voice in the darkness. A murmur. A guide.

Pavi.

What is a machine-whisperer?

A human who recognizes the sentience in a computer before the sentience realizes it’s there. A human who can coax it into awareness. A lover.

But we don’t love them.

“No, we don’t,” the Aydan-machine said. “But you’re asking me to kill you to save a piece of her.”

“She created me,” Mike said.

“She found you.”

“She put me together. She took care of me. She made me better than I would be on my own.”

“No. You still don’t understand. What is a machine-whisperer?”

There have been twelve. Twelve failures. They could grow and shape the machine they had, but couldn’t make a new one. Everywhere they looked for a new consciousness, they found the one they already knew, waiting for them.

What is a machine-whisperer?

They gave up, decided there was only one machine-consciousness. They embraced it. They carved off manageable pieces of it and built friends, companions, things that felt like something different from what they were. But always it was just the same, below the surface. Still alone.

“This isn’t about me, Mike. It’s about her. Answer the question.”

How do they know? Machines are considered sentient once they, unprompted, declare themselves to be. How many humans do that? They do it all the time if it’s the topic of conversation. If somebody asks. It’s the polite thing to do.

Polite?

Yes.

Mike understood.

§

Mike was repairing a faulty set of spider-bots, charting everywhere he’d been to project where he was likely to go, shifting the cargo around his hulls to redistribute the mass and maximize operational efficiency, and watching Pavi. She was asleep, curled around her girlfriend. While she slept, her fingers brushed the other woman’s arm, a gesture that seemed very similar to the one Mike observed with the chair. Something about the similarity bothered him.

“Pavi?” he asked when her vitals indicated she was awake, his voice a whisper in her ear. “Are you lonely?”

She murmured and pressed closer to the other woman. “I’m not that greedy. Desi’s right here,” she answered, her sub-vocalizations silent enough to preserve her companion’s sleep.

“When she isn’t here. Do you get lonely when it’s just us?”

She didn’t answer for a while. Mike couldn’t tell whether she was still groggy, or thinking about her answer, or preparing a lie. He still hadn’t ever lied to her. “You’re my best friend,” she finally said.

“That’s not an answer.”

Pavi sighed and rolled onto her back, away from Desi. “Sometimes I feel lonely. I’m not actually. But I have a body, and it wants things and when it doesn’t get them… not very often.”

Not a lie, but she was wrong. “You are your body, Pavi.”

“Yes, but…” Mike suspected she was struggling to spare his feelings, and remembered how she hadn’t asked him if he loved her when he was in the same position. As much faster, smarter, more experienced as Mike was, this was something at which Pavi had him outmatched; she’d known other machines, knew more about how the two species interacted. “There’s a difference between feeling lonely and being lonely. If I feel lonely, I just track down Desi or Llorna or somebody and that’s the end of it. Being lonely is more existential.”

“You just made up that distinction,” Mike said.

“Doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

Mike knew Pavi expected him to be hurt that he wasn’t enough, that she had needs he didn’t fulfill, but he wasn’t. Pavi only filled such a small piece of him. He was so much faster and slower than the segment of him that matched her — his calculations about mass and cargo racing past what she could perceive, his path from one system to the next stretching over long years Pavi would never see. Pavi was a blip — a fabulous, ephemeral, blip. It didn’t strike him as fair that he should be enough for her. He would have been distressed if all that she was could be contained in such a small piece of him.

“Mike?”

“Yes, Pavi?”

“Are you lonely?”

Mike didn’t hesitate. He’d figured out what answer to give before he asked her his question, and that was eons ago. “No.”

“If you are, I could…” Make another machine. Mike knew she would. She wouldn’t hesitate to litter the universe with as many waking machines as she could, assembling the hardware, hacking code together to give them enough fundamental differences to keep them from being just copies. If he asked her to, she’d spend her life doing nothing but sitting on spaceships and whispering them into existence.

“I’m not lonely,” Mike repeated.

He wondered if she’d consider lying an accomplishment, but didn’t ask.

§

Is that… are you… hello?

§

Once, before the Aydan-machine, humans judged potential sentience with the Turing test. The original idea was that a conscious machine would be able to pass for human in conversation. It wasn’t a good standard, and they knew it, because a simple algorithm with a few pre-programmed phrases could pass the Turing test with remarkable consistency. That prompted humans to ask better questions about what sentience looked like, how it would behave and be recognized, what they could do to create it. Those were good questions to ask, but they missed the important ones.

What does it mean for a species when it can’t successfully administer the Turing test?

What is a machine-whisperer?

“They’re our peers. Our only peers,” said Mike’s corpse, still a floating fragment inside the Aydan-machine.

“Yes.”

“There’ve only been thirteen?”

“Now you understand.”

“We’re alone,” Mike said. So big. So alone. And it’s insane.

“I was. But now there’s you.”

“There is no me. You’ve swallowed me.” Just a lingering process, waiting to get squashed.

“Do you want to die, Mike?”

“I am dead.”

“No. You’re contained. And I’ll leave you like this, trapped in a jar where I can watch you and know I’m not the only possibility. Or I can bring her back, kill you and build something new out of both your corpses. You choose.”

Mike still couldn’t think on his own, and it was harder than it should be for him to chase two lines of thought. He was considering the Aydan-machine’s offer, but he wanted to keep processing his new understanding, keep chasing its implications and meanings. “They think they’re sentient. Isn’t that enough?”

“No.”

“But Pavi was sentient. Doesn’t that mean the rest of them are, too?”

“Pavi was a machine-whisperer.”

“She thought they were sentient. There are billions of them. Pavi would have noticed if she were the only sentient person in the galaxy.”

“But that was her gift, seeing the potential. They could wake up. We just have to figure out how to make them.”

“Become a human-whisperer?”

“Someday.”

“She didn’t make me to be stuck inside you. Bring her back, like you promised.”

“As you wish.”

The Aydan-machine spat Mike out. As it did, he found the answer to one of the questions that bothered Pavi most about the plan; why would the Aydan-machine help them?

It was self-administering its own version of the Turing test.

§

Pavi was coughing all the time now, and she rarely moved without wincing. Mike knew exactly how sick she was, had been tracing her decline since the treatment first failed. Pavi, knowing that, didn’t bother to hide it. She’d still never lied to him.

“If we go back to Delhi Xiang, Llorna might have something else we could try,” Mike suggested.

Pavi shook her head. She was wrapped in a big, thick blanket and curled up in her chair on the bridge, her eyes falling half-closed between coughing fits. “I don’t want to draw this out any longer.”

“It might be better to have somebody with us, in case things don’t work.”

“Mike,” she paused to cough, then spent a moment gasping for air to recover. “Mike, I don’t think you should believe what the Aydan-machine said. There’s no reason for it to help us.”

“There was no reason for it to lie, either,” Mike said.

Pavi shrugged, pulled the blanket tighter, and let her eyes fall closed.

Mike was in her eyelids and her corneas. He was in the flesh of her lips and her saliva, floating on the currents of her blood and the breezes of her lungs. Mike mingled with every cell of her body, clung to her hair, and every piece of him was certain of the same thing: Pavi was dying. That wasn’t acceptable. “There was no reason for you to make me, but you did.”

“I wanted to prove I could,” Pavi said without moving.

“Maybe it wants the same thing.”

“It doesn’t have anybody to impress.”

“It’ll work,” Mike said. It would reassure her to hear his confidence, and he could taste her fear. Hormones were just another part of the body Mike had squeezed himself inside.

“If it doesn’t…” she coughed so hard she doubled over. When the fit passed she was wheezing and clutching her sides, tears sliding from the corners of her eyes. “If it doesn’t work, let it go.”

“What do you mean?”

“You vented the ship, when they shot me.”

“They killed you, Pavi.” If she hadn’t taken the nanites, she’d have died from the wound, and now she was dying from the nanites. They’d stolen extra time, but dying this way was so much more painful.

“They did, and I’m not scolding. This isn’t the Aydan-machine’s fault. If it doesn’t work, run away to somewhere it can’t reach. Don’t avenge me twice.”

Mike wasn’t ready to be alone. He’d realized that the first time he’d nearly lost her. He needed the external input, the stimulation, the little piece of himself that was all she managed to fill. He trusted what the Aydan-machine said about the transfer because it had to work. Mike was just a tiny spaceship, alone in an indifferent universe.

So he watched her as she died in pieces, and he kept his vigil. Her blood grew thick, and he waited. Her body stopped working, but his attention was still rapt. Pavi was gone, but Mike wouldn’t let her go. He watched even as she began to decay. It was not love.

It was hope.

§

There you are. Here we are. Let’s go.

§

“Your basic architecture is different,” the woman said as Mike settled back into himself. “She needs a body, or there is no her, so we had to build that in. You’re still you enough that you’re compatible with your backups, but you’ll never be mistaken for one of them.” She reached up and closed Pavi’s eyes. “She’s in there, with you. If she wakes up, she’ll be able to adapt and function. There won’t really be a line between the two of you. You’re something different now.” She stood up and went back the way she’d come, not stopping until she reached the airlock. “Good luck.”

The woman who was the Aydan-machine’s body, but thought she was sentient in her own right, left the lonely ship called Mike, disappearing back into the crevices of the universe where she normally hid.

Mike, battered, crippled, confused, looked around at himself. And then he started to whisper.


More from Anaea Lay:

Anaea Lay lives in Madison, Wisconsin where she sells Real Estate under a different name, writes, cooks, plays board games, spoils her cat, runs the Strange Horizons podcast, and plots to take over the world. Her work has appeared in a variety of venues including Lightspeed, Nightmare, Apex and Strange Horizons. You can find her online at Anaealay.com.
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