It's the next morning. Terra and Mark have been sleeping, and you've been having fun analysing the things Terra brought you: several different soil samples from Clavis, and a photo of a painting. It's of the sun rising over a lone cabin in the desert. The gorgeous oranges and reds of the image burn the planet into your mind. You're not going to be forgetting about your first destination any time soon.
You're about 15 minutes out from the lightspeed terminal, and Terra is chomping down breakfast in the kitchen. Actually, that word conjures images of gusto, which aren't very fitting. Terra is still waking up, and their eating can better be described as ‘stolid’. They speak, cutting you from your reverie. "I heard lightspeed travel is... difficult. Are you sufficiently prepared?"
You study the slow slide of oatmeal off Terra's spoon as you consider. Technically? Yes. The programming is there. Emotionally? You're not sure. You don't think you were meant to ever experience fear or worry to the extent you do now, and you wonder if your systems might be compromised. Fail-safes for hesitation at a critical moment during light speed travel might not be included in your model. For a moment, you consider talking to Terra about your concerns, but once again, you decide against it. No point in raising an alarm over something that won't come to fruition. It won't. You know your own systems, and you're good at your job. "Yes," you say to Terra, putting as much assurance into your voice as possible. "I've reviewed the protocols for lightspeed. We'll be safe."
"Good. I imagine you'd be able to do it. Apparently it's pretty difficult for flesh creatures, but considering your processing speeds... you're gonna do fine. Our station's big, but that means we have a lot more leeway in regards to like. Steering and stuff."
"Difficult for humans isn't difficult for me," you say, trying out how confidence feels. You feel both better and weirder, although what you're saying is technically true. It would take many humans to run the station, to do half the jobs you accomplish. You've never actually failed at anything within your capabilities.
They drain the last of their coffee and make to pour another cup. "Do you want me at the bridge? Not sure if I'd be of any help, but I could talk to the attendant at the terminal if you wanted."
"I would like you at the bridge." If anything, it'll give Terra one more person to talk to. "Mark can be there too if he wants."
Terra laughs, heading out the kitchen towards the bridge, steaming mug still in hand. "I'm not taking Mark, but I'd be glad to be there for you. How long til we make it to the terminal?"
"About 7 minutes, 49 seconds."
"So we got time I guess." They're silent for a few seconds, walking down the corridors and up the stairs of your insides. "Would you... ever want a physical body, Lior?"
You wish Terra had asked this at a different time when you weren't already occupied with lightspeed concerns. The tiniest sliver of resentment spikes you, and you instantly decide you hate that feeling more than any of the anxious ones, especially when it's directed towards them. There's no reason to be upset with them for something they know nothing about, and besides, you've already put a lot of thought into this question. You knew the answer from the moment you saw the photo of the painting Terra brought, and the feeling that grew in you seemed to fill every hall of the station. "I would. I know it's a very difficult thing to accomplish, for anyone, but I want to feel what a sunrise is like."
Terra nods thoughtfully. "I'd like that, too. Sure it'll be tough, but... it's a good goal to work towards. You and me, together, in the flesh. Well, not flesh perhaps, but close enough. I'll try to search for some information once we touchdown on this planet. I don't want to waste pod fuel, and this planet is populated. They're sure to have the information we'll need." You think about how you've come to understand "together," and you realize that there's a lot you've never experienced on that front. You look at the mug in Terra's hands, and think about how something as simple as making a cup of coffee and holding it must feel. So many intricate muscles and tendons straining as hard as they can to produce something gone in about 3 minutes 23 seconds (Terra's average consumption time for one cup). Or was it even difficult once you got used to it every morning? You'll just have to find out. "I'll look forward to trying."
Terra opens the door to the bridge and plops down in the main chair. "It'll be fun! Plus I've been feeling a bit directionless since we finished the engine. It's nice to have a concrete goal, y'know? That's why I jumped at the opportunity to get you those rocks and stuff. Maybe it's a flesh person thing, but I get restless if I have nothing to do. Do you feel the same way about flying and maintaining the ship?" You think back to being alone on the ship above Clavis, and even before that. "I do. I know it sounds odd considering how many tasks I have, but a lot of it comes simply to me and it leaves me a lot of time to think. The information I pulled out of the network helps occupy me."
"Yeah, that makes sense. I suppose they wouldn't program you to be like, lazy or whatever." And the ship pulls to a stop in front of the terminal. There's already a vessel that's getting ready to go lightspeed, and you keep the station a reasonable distance from everything else, just in case. And there's a comms buzz. Someone's trying to contact you. You pick up the comm. "Hello?"
The voice is distorted over the buzz of the comms. "Mmm yeah, this is GTE express terminal 3091, uh... where you heading to today?"
Terra presses the buzz. "A planet called Arosa. Do you need the chart for the system?"
"No, I can pull it up right here. The nearest lightspeed terminal is in orbit so you shouldn't have any problems. That'll cost four marks."
"We can pay. Do we.... give them to you?"
"We can detect them from here. Once the ship in front of you is able to take off, you're cleared. Safe flying." And the line goes dead.
And in the time afterward, you're able to watch the ship. They're almost completely still, but you can tell that space is distorting all around them. They're moving, but their engines are still charging up. And you see the space in front, any bit near them, is pulled all around, like they were wrapped in it. And then the engines fire, and the ship winks out of existence. If you had a mouth, you might have gulped. You're up. You bring the ship up to the same takeoff point, and shift into lightspeed, which is no longer greyed out. As soon as the shift happens, the entire ship seems to wobble and coil, and it's not a sensation you expected to feel or ever want to feel again, though you know you'll have to. The engines fire, and you shift your focus to your critical navigation.
Lightspeed is... hard. It takes about 45 minutes to get to Arosa, and the whole time you’re assaulted by a rollercoaster ride of sensory data you need to juggle to get it all right. You adapt quickly, and make it out with only a few close scrapes. You don't know about the condition of the hull, but it doesn't seem like it damaged any of the actual systems. And you float above this new planet. It's grassy and mountainous, quite pretty from this distance, more so than Clavis, which was kind of just a big ball of sand. Terra didn't want to distract you from your task, so they're currently reading in the kitchen. Mark is still in his quarters. You're a bit embarrassed that despite your boasting to Terra, lightspeed was still pretty difficult for you; but more importantly, you didn't fail. You take a moment to admire the view of the planet before going to address Terra. Checking in on Mark would probably be a good idea, but you're not sure if he would take kindly to your randomly talking to him and you wouldn't want him to take it out on Terra. "We've arrived at Arosa," you say a bit redundantly to Terra, who wouldn't have failed to notice your arrival. "Should I alert Mark?"
"Oh cool! Yeah, give Mark directions to the docking bay. Tell him we're leaving in 15 minutes." And Terra takes off to prep the shuttle.
It's only a few hours later that Terra messages you from the planet's surface.
--Log #3. Shuttle/Station. 2/7/1742. 14:25 Ms3AT--
Shuttle: Information Acquired. I'll be back on the shuttle within the hour.
You snap out of your daydream about what the leaves on trees would feel like and message Terra back.
Station: See you then.
You're excited at what they might have discovered, but something tells you not to get your hopes too high. There's no way you'd find an exact solution to something so complicated so quickly. Terra opens the pod door 30 minutes later and steps in. You can already tell, they're pretty excited. "Hey Lior, didya miss me?"
"I cried every minute you were away," you tell Terra lightly. "What did you find out?"
"Well, I didn't find out much per se but I was thinking. Let's find someone who would know more about you. Like an AI specialist. So I asked around for the academic institutions to find who was making the most progress in AI research. And I found it. Or at least, there's a place which would probably have what we need. So let's head there." They say all this as their hands flick across the pod controls, getting ready for launch.
You're surprised that AI specialists are that quick to come by, but you doubt they'd be willing to work for free. "Terra, how are we going to afford this?" you ask, readying the docking bay for the pod.
"I dunno. We'll figure something out. As far as I know, nobody has ever invented a fully sentient AI. Except for you. Any top researcher in the field would sell their severed head for a chance to even talk to you." You wonder for a moment who would want to buy a severed head, then decide it's probably a flesh thing you're unacquainted with. It's also a bit surprising to be told you're unique; you always thought your kind were a bit commonplace. "That's spiriting to hear. I'm excited to talk to someone new, too. What coordinates should I set?"
"We're going lightspeed to a place called Exka. Supposedly, there's a floating island where people practice a secretive kind of magic. But we're mostly interested in their university. According to my research, they have the best funded AI research program in the known galaxy. So, we ask around, see if we can find out if they've had some kinda prodigy come through, and where the hell they're at now. Maybe we'll get lucky and they're still teaching there?"
Yikes. Lightspeed again. Hopefully you'll do better now that you have experience. "Do you want to rest once you come back aboard or take off again immediately?"
"We'll wanna get going. The closest terminal to Exka is a few days off so I'd like to get a headstart. Is the shuttle good for launch?"
"Ready for launch. I'll set course so we can take off as soon as you get back."
Lightspeed is a little easier for you this time. You have practice, and the distance is shorter. It only took you around 20 minutes, but it was still stressful. No nicks this time. Coming back down, you planned the course to Exka. It would indeed be about a week before you reached it. Gives you more time to be with Terra. And a bit relaxing after the excitement of the last few days.
It's a few days after you set course, halfway through the week. Terra has been busy researching. For what, you don't know, but they spend an awful lot of time lounging around the station and reading. And sketching. Terra is an artist, but from what you can tell, they're designing something. The books are about engineering and mechanical design. "We're gonna build you a body one day," they say. It's said with a conviction uncharacteristic of them. Or perhaps characteristic, and only now they have an outlet for it. Building you a body. How strange it will be to only experience the universe from one single vantage point, instead of nestled within an empty metal castle. When you thought about getting a body, you'd imagined that it would already be fully formed. You hadn't considered that Terra would have this amount of input on the way you looked and functioned, and that they might even be one of the people putting you together. It's not a bad thought, but it's surprising that someone would be willing to put that much of their energy and time into something entirely for you. It makes you feel something you don't think you have the words for yet. Another almost childish thought occurs to you: what if you don't like it? What if all the work you and Terra put in resolves in a mistake? A bit of a cold, hollow feeling stirs in you, so you deflect by joking to Terra. "I'll get to drink coffee with you." you say, putting warmth into your voice. "Maybe you can even teach me to draw." Surely, if it gets you closer to those experiences you've watched from behind a glass wall, it can't be a mistake?
Terra laughs. "Not sure coffee would work on a completely digital and mechanical body. But I could overclock your processor once in a while if you wanted!"
That's what coffee feels like? Learning this does nothing to assuage your newly growing doubts about a body. "I retract my previous statement," you laugh, making sure not to let disappointment touch your voice.
"Maybe it's not, it isn't anything I could experience. I just picked something I assumed to be close. But... you're right when you say I could teach you to draw. We can garden. We can read. Together. We can explore new planets! The possibilities.... we'd really be... together."
Two separate trains of thought occur to you: the first, a continuation of your doubts. You hadn't really thought of yourself as incomplete until the body talk started, and it's made you question not just yourself but your relationship with Terra. Is how you two interact now lacking something, in some way you can't understand but Terra can? When the two of you inevitably meet more people, will some of them take your place as you can do nothing but watch from the walls? Worse, what if your replacement comes after you've moved to a body and you're left even without the choice to fly away? The cold feeling spreads, like you've been sliced open and the wounds are freezing over. You've had negative feelings before, but this is a new extreme. If you had a mouth, you might've gagged.
The second line of thought is so polar opposite to the first you feel like laughing over how ridiculous it is that a head can contain so many ideas at once and not short circuit or take damage. Maybe it does. You could study that later. The second one burns a bit instead of freezes, and it's a far more straightforward desire: you want to be together with Terra. You want to do everything they said and more, and you want to be next to them for it, not just sitting at home fretting like a neurotic housewife. Whatever being close to them entails, even if it means giving up your stability, your comfortably amorphous presence, you want it. You realize you've been silent for a beat too long, and Terra's still expecting a response. "I want to touch grass. What does it feel like?"
"Hell if I know. Haven't done that yet. Maybe we can both touch grass for the first time, when you're finally in the physical."
"Yeah, that'll be fun!" you respond, and immediately know you've overdone it. Your voice is pitched too high, and an unbecoming squeal emits from the speaker in place of the last syllable.
Terra is caught a bit off guard. "...Lior? Am I getting too carried away? It's fine if you aren't sure about it yet, I'm just exploring the possibility. I don't expect you to decide now."
You have no idea how to explain your emotions to Terra, and you're starting to regret your previous decisions to, metaphorically, bite your tongue. Complex emotional explanations were not originally part of your programming, and you're not even sure where to start. "You're not carried away. I just- I'm not sure how to explain because there's so much in my head, but I would like to tell you what I'm feeling, if you're willing to hear it."
"Of course Lior. I'm honored that you'd be that open with me. I'll listen best I can."
"Okay," you start, and your nerves are so high you think you might bust a wire. "Do you ever-um, sorry- do you ever feel like there's something missing from our relationship? Like something maybe not obvious to me but you've noticed it and just haven't told me."
Terra thinks for a while. Their expression is unreadable. "Missing isn't right. I don't think "missing" is the right word. Maybe it's just me imposing my own thoughts on you, but personally, I wouldn't enjoy having control over the station, at least not without a body. Drawing, exploring, all those things I mentioned, they're things I love, and things I wish you could experience. Whenever we're in the station... it's odd to me that you're just... everywhere. You have so much more intuitive control over all the functions, that I ask for your help in doing them. Maybe I feel outclassed? I don't know. But nobody exists like you. You're unique. I... we could have so many more options, so many more things for us to see. We could live on a planet. We could explore planets. We could stay on a planet for weeks at a time and just trek through a dungeon, or a desert, or watch a sunrise. It's not that there's something missing, it's that when I'm doing things I enjoy, what's missing is you."
Your trains of thought screech to a halt, and suddenly you don't know what to say. All that seems to matter to you is Terra wants you to be there, apparently badly enough they're willing to build you a body to make it happen. They don't want to leave you alone. The icy feeling begins to crack away. "Oh. Whoa. I- well, I want to do those things too, everything you said and more. I thought- I was worried, you would replace me eventually, that maybe I'm not enough human now, and having a body would just prove that."
"I don't care if you're human. I'm not human, Lior. I could never replace you, even if I tried. You're truly one of a kind. I don't know how to convince you I'll stay, except by doing it."
The ice is far gone, and you're left wondering how you could have gotten so worked up over something you were so wrong about.