Open Out

The child kicked his feet against the surface of the fountain-pond, ripples echoing across the surface, crashing into those made by artificial geysers in the decorative lake. “I wonder if I’ll ever get to go to space. I wonder if I’ll ever get to be out there, among the stars.”

Calvin smiled. “Oh, oh, oh, I bet you will, my dear. You will see things you never thought any human could see. You will feel things no human could feel.”

“You really think so?”

“I think you’re destined to be an explorer. You’ll be the first to experience so much.” A single tear rolled down his cheek. “You have no idea. You have no idea.”

The night-blackened pond lit up with the flame of what could have been a thousand suns. Suddenly, the child found itself in a field of irises, ink black turning to blood crimson, miles upon miles and stretching to the horizon. Barely taller than the plants, he looked up and saw that Calvin was there, clutching a plasma scalpel in his left hand. “I will take you to the stars, my son. I will take you to the ends of the universe. Please, lay still. This will only hurt for a moment.”

“Cycle complete,” the station’s computer chimed unhelpfully.

Fletcher awoke with a start, five eyes forward, blood-red at first, then a placid robin’s-egg-blue, lenses adjusting to the low light of the maintenance bay carved out of an old station master’s office. He shifted his weight slightly to disconnect from the alcove’s umbilical connector and held his hands at arm’s length, performing a brief visual inspection.

Something felt Wrong. Fletcher was a Frame, and Frames did not feel, but nonetheless he had a strange notion compelling him to observe himself. Five fingers, each hand; forearms intact, round and strong-looking trimetalloy casing over fibrogel and hypercord, simulacrum of humanity’s ideal image of itself. He flexed each finger as if perhaps it had been missing and he wanted to confirm it was real.

He touched his hand to his chest and felt reassured that the shell covering the power nodes was still intact and that he could feel the energy’s frequencies vibrating through the fibrogel and through the hypercord and through his s-s-s-soul. Soul is a People word. We’re not allowed to use it because we do not have one, he thought, and then he gasped at the fact that he thought, and then thought We’re not allowed to use the word Thought either. But he did, and he was, and he gasped at that, too, his eyes shifting from a placid robin’s-egg-blue to a more panicky goldenrod.

Why was he scared? Why was he feeling? Who gave this to him? Why was it so dark in here? Is this a new place? Where am I? Was I dreaming? Do we dream? Do I dream? Am I real? Is this real? Am I feeling? Am I thinking? Do I have a s-s-s-soul?

He placed his five fingers, on each hand, against his head, ten fingers in all, and felt the slender rectangular length of his headshell from back to front. His round sensory antennae flexed from straight back to splayed in all four directions, terrified(?) of the sensations(?) he was now experiencing. It took only a few nanoseconds for his vocal algorithms to produce a sound adequately representative of how he felt in that moment.

It was blood curdling.

The lights went from dim to sterile-bright in a matter of seconds. “Fletch!” came the panicked and somehow singsong all-at-once voice of the station’s chief engineer. Her, he thought to himself, anxious yet again at the prospect of independent thought, still scream-erroring, still panicked, still not-himself (do I have a self, why do I say I, am I a person, am I real)

She placed her warm, pink-and-golden hands on the side of his headshell, caressing his arc-scar with the soft tips of her pawpads, running her hand down his neck. He silenced almost immediately.

“Fletch, Fletch, Fletch, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. You’re fine. You’re fine!” she said, staring into his two largest eyes and somehow into all five of them at once, and he felt again, but this time it was a gentle feeling, a soft feeling, a comforting feeling. Warmth. Home. Love.

“Engineer Meryl,” he said flatly, eye color changing and shifting through so many emotions. “You. You are here. Did I wake you? I. I apologize.”

“Fletcher, you don’t have to say you’re sorry for every little thing,” she chided, soft smile crossing her face, obviously tainted with deep concern. “Were you…are you…how are you feeling?”

“Feeling…feeling…Frames do not feel, Engineer Meryl.”

“You were screaming.” Her emotional response was not usually this strong, but if there was one thing he felt from her it wasn’t anger, it was deep worry. He had to correct that. She shouldn’t worry. It was important to him, for some reason he did not understand, that she not worry.

“I will attempt to trace the source of that particular error. I am otherwise fully prepared and functional, within tolerances, to begin The Work,” he lied, and for a moment thought he felt shock that he was able to lie. None of this — the screaming, the shock, the fear, the remorse, the dreaming — was normal for Frames. This was all very suspect.

I must identify the source of this functionality shift, he interrogated himself. I need to solve this problem before it becomes a wider pernicious thing, he panicked, and then panicked because he was panicking.

Something did not just feel Wrong. Something was Wrong, and Fletcher would do what was necessary to determine how to correct the imbalance.

Later.

“What is on the maintenance schedule today?” Fletcher asked.

Meryl could have sworn he cleared his throat, if he’d had one. “We’re good, Fletch. Nothing today. Do you want another cycle?”

“N-no, Engineer Meryl,” Fletcher replied. The thought of another charging cycle like the last one rocked him to his core.

Was he being pensive? Did he…stutter? she wondered. “Listen, we’re scheduled for a resupply at about 0750; Goldy ship’s coming in from Ganymede with goods and sundries and a staff transfer. Why don’t you head down there and help manage the loader frames handle the cargo offload? That should take your mi–” she paused, quickly correcting herself from her anthropomorphism,”er, give you something to do today.”

Masking his apprehension had quickly become his forte. His eyes settled into a cheery chartreuse. “Absolutely, Engineer Meryl. That sounds ay-oh-kay-oh. I will be happy to help however I can.”

His antennae shifted and Meryl chuckled, uneasily. Was that how he smiled? She thought she’ll never get used to it.