by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Tri-Galactic Trek, December 2019
Fact was not a fox, but it was easiest for the canine and feline crew of the starship Initiative to think of zir as one. With snowy white silicon fur and yellow eyes flecked by actual gold flakes, zhe looked uncanny enough without worrying about whether zir creator had meant zir to be a cat or a dog.
Fact’s ears were too perfectly triangular to be a dog’s; zir muzzle was too long and narrow to be a cat’s. Zhe was an android, and zhe didn’t mind being thought of as a fox.
Fact did mind the way that the rest of the crew treated zir differently than an organically evolved lifeform. All of them — cats, dogs, and the sole android — of the Tri-Galactic Navy had been constructed by humans originally, and whether they’d been organically uplifted or built from mechanical parts, they all strove to live their lives in the best way they could.
For Fact, that meant spending a lot of time trying to understand the fuzzy emotions that organic creatures were alternately plagued with and blessed by. Fact’s emotions were much simpler. More logical. Clearer. But by no means non-existent, for how can motive and action exist without the physical sensation of emotions? Simply for Fact, those emotional responses were hardwired into literal neutronic wiring.
Organic cats and dogs seemed to experience their emotions much less predictably, more erratically, and without even understanding them. Fact was continually surprised by the way that the cats and dogs around zir could be so completely unaware of their own emotions. Fact’s programming had trouble assimilating the information that cats and dogs were capable of such depths of unawareness, no matter how often the data was presented to zir.
For instance, security chief Natalie Vonn, a yellow Labrador, seemed completely unaware of the fact that her tail wagged faster, her muzzle pulled into a smile, and her ears perked up every time she saw Fact. She clearly harbored feelings of some sort for the small, androgynous, android. In the colloquial language of organic emotions, she seemed to have a crush on zir. Fact knew that for sure based on months of observations. What zhe didn’t know was what to do about it.
Fact was surprised to discover, mulling over the situation, that apparently zhe harbored some kind of complex feelings for Lieutenant Vonn as well. For what else can a preoccupation with trying to understand someone else’s feelings be called but another feeling? What did this mean?
Fact put zir preoccupation with Lieutenant Vonn aside (in spite of the fact that the yellow Labrador was working at a console on the other side of the engineering room, tail wagging happily) and focused on the unusual energy readings zhe’d been picking up from the space around the planet that the TGN Initiative was currently orbiting.
On the console display screen, the background radiation around the planet showed up as a misty cloud of dark purple, thick around the planet and then trailing off like a teardrop. Actually, more like a paisley, given the intricate patterns of density within the shape. Fact wondered what could have caused such an unusual pattern of background radiation. However, so far as zir readings showed, it was not dangerous and should not interfere with the TGN Initiative sending a landing party down to the planet’s surface.
Fact was relieved. Zhe’d been especially anticipating this mission. The planet below, Thomicron Eta, was where zhe’d originally been discovered several years earlier with zir memory erased and protonic brain powered down. Zhe knew almost nothing about the world, as the ship to discover zir had been a long haul cargo vessel, unequipped for exploration. They’d only stopped at Thomicron Eta because Fact’s protonic brain had been emitting a distress signal.
Fact didn’t know why zir brain had been emitting a distress signal. Fact didn’t know anything about what zhe’d been doing on Thomicron Eta or zir life before the cargo ship had discovered zir. Zhe hoped — and had reasonable expectations — that this mission would prove illuminating.
The captain’s feline voice came over Fact’s comm-pin: “Lieutenant Fact, have you established whether it’s safe for the mission to proceed?”
Fact tapped the comm-pin on the breast of zir uniform to transmit zir answer back to the bridge: “With a reasonable degree of certainty, yes, the mission is safe to proceed, Captain.”
“Very well,” the captain answered. “Security Chief Lieutenant Vonn will be in charge. Please choose another engineering officer to join the two of you.”
“I choose Lieutenant LeGuin,” Fact answered without hesitation. The orange tabby, Jordan LeGuin, was zir closest companion aboard the Initiative, the closest thing Fact had to a friend.
Fact didn’t exactly feel affection for Lieutenant LeGuin, but zhe enjoyed the rhythm of working with the brilliant tabby. His mind was ordered, logical, and less susceptible to the more unpredictable organic emotions than most of the officers Fact had worked with. Yet the insights Jordan LeGuin offered to technical situations often surprised Fact. He had a different way of looking at the world than the androgynous android fox. And Fact valued that difference immensely.
The yellow lab, orange tabby, and white fox gathered together, made their way to the teleportation bay, and teleported down to the surface of Thomicron Eta in a smear of quantum sparkles.
* * *
Thomicron Eta was the seventh world orbiting a double sun. When the three officers from the Initiative arrived, the green sky was clear and bright, the color of an algae-filled pool. The fifth and sixth planets in the system hung in the sky like glittering jewels; stars so bright their diamond shine pierced the green sky in broad daylight. The double sun cast long shadows from where it glared, orange and bright on the horizon, and a gibbous moon high in the sky cast short shadows with the light reflecting from its wan yellow face, brighter than the moon on Earth had ever shone.
“This is a beautiful world!” Lieutenant Vonn barked. Her brush of a yellow tail wagged eagerly.
“You always say that,” Lieutenant LeGuin observed. The end of his orange striped tail twitched nervously, and his whiskers quivered as he tasted the air. But his eyes were hidden behind the techno-focal goggles he always wore. He saw worlds differently than the other organic officers, filtered through computer processors and overlaid with collected data.
Fact had tried LeGuin’s techno-focal goggles once, and zhe still didn’t understand why all officers didn’t wear them. The extra data they provided to LeGuin — more than Fact’s own eyes could see in certain dimensions — would benefit any officer. Regardless, organic lifeforms make illogical decisions, valuing aesthetics over utility.
Occasionally, Fact experimented with turning down the speed and acuity of zir own internal data analysis algorithms to see if zhe could experience life in a way more similar to organic lifeforms. Zhe generally found the experience unsatisfactory and confusing. Zhe did keep trying though.
Wind rustled through Fact’s snowy white silicon fur. If zhe were organic, zhe would have shivered. Instead, Fact said, “We should start by exploring the large domed building.” The team had teleported into a clearing on a bluff overlooking the abandoned colony. “According to our scans from orbit, that building has the highest density of technical equipment inside it. I think we’re most likely to find answers there.”
The domed building was larger than most of the buildings around it and located at a nexus of several of the larger streets through the colony. It was clearly important, and in a colony such as this one had been, was likely devoted to science and research. Most of the seed colonies extended by the Coalition of Uplift began as research stations and grew into full colonies if their worlds continued to prove hospitable.
“Anywhere with a computer sounds good to me,” Lieutenant LeGuin meowed. “If we can find a physical hookup into a local computer system, I can try to access any networked databases that are still running and download whatever digital records the colonists kept.”
Lieutenant Vonn led the way with her jauntily wagging tail. She loved missions down to planetary surfaces. She loved the feel of fresh dirt roads under her paw pads and the wideness of the sky above her. She liked the way the air moved, rushing against her in sudden breezes that pressed the fabric of her uniform into her fur and then falling still.
Lieutenant Vonn was also alert, ears perked and listening for any surprises, and paw ready to reach for her holstered blazor if she needed it to protect the scientists she was guiding. In her experience, science officers tended to be a little oblivious. They got caught up in the exploration and forgot about the potential dangers. For Vonn, the potential danger was part of the excitement.
“So, we don’t know what happened to this colony at all?” Vonn asked. She shot glances down each street they passed. The buildings were in perfect condition. Hovercrafts were parked in charging stations. There was no sign of any panic or sudden evacuation. No sign of violence or catastrophic acts of nature.
“We do not,” Fact agreed. Zir own white tail swished behind zir as zhe walked, but only enough to aid in balance. The complex intellectual reactions happening inside of zir protonic brain — weighing probabilities, forging theories, dividing the improbable from the impossible — did not show in the tilt of zir ears or the movement of zir tail. Zhe exuded only calmness and curiosity.
“According to the records,” Fact said, “there were more than five hundred colonists in this seed settlement.” Fact knew exactly how many colonists but had found organic officers were more comfortable with rounder, approximate numbers. Especially when those numbers represented individual cats and dogs who had, in all probability, died.
Lieutenant Vonn shot a glance toward Fact. She stood nearly a head taller than the androgynous white fox, and her shoulders were easily twice as wide. Yet they both knew that Fact’s silicon-based body was strong enough to lift her one-pawed. They had sparred together in the lumo-bay during monthly martial arts sessions designed to keep officers sharp. Fact didn’t need them. Zhe participated anyway, and Lieutenant Vonn always wondered why.
Lieutenant Vonn checked the domed building for security measures or booby traps left in place. She found nothing and let the orange tabby and white fox get to work inside. As she expected, they went straight to the nearest bank of computers, hunkered down over the keyboards, and disappeared into a world of ones and zeroes, rich with data, but lacking in the personal touches that Vonn knew she could find by looking the building over with her own eyes and sniffing it out with her own nose.
“Stay here,” Lieutenant Vonn told the scientists. “If you finish working with the computers before I’m back, contact me via the comm-pin. I don’t want you exploring these buildings on your own.”
“Where are you going?” Lt. LeGuin asked, glancing up from the computer he’d been working on. The data streaming across the screen reflected off of his techno-focal goggles.
“To explore on my own,” Lt. Vonn answered. “But I’m a security officer, so I’ll be safe.”
Lt. LeGuin muttered something under his whiskers about hypocrisy, but Fact objected: “Lieutenant Vonn is objectively more capable of protecting herself on an alien planet than you are — she’s trained in several different fighting styles, practices regularly, and is twice your size.”
“But I’ve got you,” LeGuin said. “And you’re the strongest officer aboard the Initiative. Even stronger than Grawf!” LeGuin was referring to the ship’s one ursine exchange officer — a bear who towered over every other officer on the ship.
“Yes,” Fact said, “but I am compromised on this mission. My personal investment causes my commitment and focus to be suspect. Besides, I am not in charge of this mission. Lieutenant Vonn is, and that makes her personally responsible for you.”
Lt. LeGuin skewed his orange ears. “You consider yourself compromised?”
“I have a vested interest in the outcome.” Fact did not skew zir ears. And Fact’s tail did not swish. Zhe didn’t even look at LeGuin as zhe spoke. Zhe sat at the computer zhe’d been examining as still as a robotic statue, staring directly at the information streaming across the screen.
LeGuin watched Fact for a while before saying, “I’d take you at your most compromised over most officers at their most objective, Fact. Any day.”
Fact nodded, a slight forward tilt of zir pointy white muzzle that anyone who wasn’t paying close attention would miss. But LeGuin saw the nod and knew Fact acknowledged and appreciated his comment.
* * *
While the silicon fox and organic cat worked on the computers, Lt. Vonn explored the rest of the building. For a yellow Labrador, she moved stealthily through the corridors, keeping her tail still and placing her paws as lightly as any cat could have.
She saw desks with knick-knacks still on them. She saw pots of dirt that should have had dead, withered husks of plants in them — instead they sat empty. Whatever had happened here had happened fast, too fast for the colonists to pack up their little treasures. Too fast, probably, for them to have reacted at all. The fur under the collar of Lt. Vonn’s uniform prickled. She had a bad feeling about this world, and it troubled her that she couldn’t even smell the presence of the dogs and cats who’d once lived and worked here. As far as her nose could tell, the colonists had never been in this building at all.
Now that she thought about it, the vegetation outside the building had changed as they’d entered the town. In the distance, she’d seen forests, but the only plants they’d passed while walking through the colony’s streets had been young — shrubs, grass, moss. None of the trees she would have expected a young colony to plant along its streets. A few seedlings, sprouting from unusual places maybe, but nothing more than a few years old, and none of them planted purposefully in neat rows.
Lt. Vonn came to a room littered with brightly colored plastic toys on the floor. A nursery or childcare room of some sort. She almost turned away, unable to face the evidence of puppies and kittens gone missing. But a row of brightly colored crayon drawings taped to the wall caught her eye. She felt compelled to look at them, to pay her respects. It was the least she could do.
There is something deeply wrong about a child’s drawing without the slightest hint of the child’s scent embedded in the paper. Lt. Vonn looked at the stick drawings of cats and dogs — family portraits mostly, with a row of stick figures sporting floppy comma-like or pointy angular ears and S-shaped or oblong tails, standing together beside boxy homes under the bright green scribbles of the sky.
A few of the drawings featured a stick figure drawn in white with pointy ears, an oblong tail, and shiny eyes. These children had known Fact, even if zhe did not remember them. Fact had told Vonn zhe had no memories of this place before the cargo ship discovered zir.
Lt. Vonn’s stomach clenched into a knot as she noticed another trend — in the scribbled green skies, many of the children had drawn loopy chains, strings of Os in the same eerie white crayon as they’d use for drawing Fact. At first, Lt. Vonn had thought nothing of them, assuming they were childish attempts at drawing clouds. But a computer station in the corner, built into a bulky plastic frame to protect it from the battering of young paws, was playing a slide show of photographs on its screen. The slide show flipped through photos of puppies and kittens playing, in this room but also outside in a yard with willowy saplings that should have been solid young trees by now. As the pictures flipped by, Lt. Vonn watched for the sky.
Glowing white discs stretched across the green sky in chains, like in the children’s drawings. They weren’t clouds. Lt. Vonn didn’t know what they were. She grabbed a drawing from the wall — one with Fact standing beside a brown floppy-eared stick figure — that had the chain of white Os in the green sky. She took it back to the room where Fact and Lt. LeGuin continued to work on the bank of computers.
Lt. Vonn held the slightly crumpled drawing out for them to see. “I found this,” she woofed. “A whole wall of drawings like this one.”
Fact looked at the drawing and said, “The art style suggests that drawing was made by a preschool-aged child.” After a moment, zhe added, “It is very nice.” Zhe had developed protocols for being polite and kind. “However, I don’t see how it’s relevant.”
Lt. Vonn pointed at the stick figure fox with a dull claw and said, “You’re in it.”
Fact blinked. For zir, the understated motion was a sign of great surprise. “So I am.”
“And this chain of circles in the sky?” Lt. Vonn traced her claw tip along them. “These are in many of the other drawings, and I don’t know what they are.”
“Clouds?” Lt. LeGuin suggested, but Lt. Vonn was already shaking her head.
“They’re not,” the yellow lab woofed. “I saw photographs too, flashing by on a computer display, and whatever spatial phenomenon these children were trying to draw looks unlike anything I’ve seen before.”
“The child care records…” Fact muttered, turning back to the computer display.
“We haven’t checked those files yet,” Lt. LeGuin explained.
In only a moment, Fact had the same photographs flashing across zir computer screen as Vonn had seen in the playroom. “You are correct,” Fact said. “This phenomenon is quite unusual. I can find no records of anything similar in any of my internal databases. Perhaps the Initiative’s computer banks will be more useful for identifying it.”
“Not likely,” LeGuin muttered.
“I appreciate the loyalty,” Fact said, “but the Initiative’s databases are far more extensive than my own.”
“Want to bet?” the orange cat said.
“An intriguing proposition,” Fact replied. “But I believe we should stay focused on the situation at hand. Perhaps we can explore the idea of friendly wagers later?”
LeGuin’s muzzle quirked into a smile. “Sure, Fact.”
“A number of the senior officers have a standing game of poker during the weekend shift,” Lt. Vonn said. “I’m sure you’d both be welcome.” The speed of her tail wagging increased, and her muzzle widened in a hopeful grin. Subtly. But Fact saw the difference.
“That sounds highly educational,” Fact said. Zir golden eyes held Lt. Vonn’s brown-eyed gaze a moment longer than was strictly necessary. Then zhe turned zir attention back to the computer. “I believe I have successfully instructed this computer to aggregate data from all the other computers on its network and transmit the amalgamated data up to the Initiative. We can continue to analyze the data aboard the ship.” Zhe stood up and concluded, “I believe we are done here.”
“Are you kidding?” Lt. Vonn half-woofed, half-laughed.
“Yeah, Fact,” LeGuin meowed. “You haven’t looked around at all.”
“Yes, but Lt. Vonn has.” The white fox continued to stand, ears tall, totally unperturbed. “I trust her abilities.”
“That’s not the point,” LeGuin said. Beside him, Lt. Vonn puffed up at the unexpected compliment, holding her broad shoulders a little wider and her head higher. The orange tabby continued, “You lived here.” He took the crumpled child’s drawing from Lt. Vonn and held it up. “You knew people here. People you don’t remember at all. Isn’t it worth looking around a little? Seeing if anything jogs your memory?”
Fact said gently, “My memory does not work like yours. My memories are entirely accessible to me at all times. Nothing can ‘jog’ my protonic brain into uncovering memories it no longer contains.”
“Are you sure?” LeGuin pressed. “You’re assuming your memory was wiped clean. What if, instead, some of your memories were stored behind a firewall? To protect you from them?”
“An intriguing possibility,” Fact said. “But unlikely.” Fact stared at zir compatriots, measuring zir options. Both LeGuin and Vonn communicated their hopes and desires in myriad miniscule physical manifestations. Dilated eyes, fluffed fur around the hackles, perked ears. They wanted Fact to explore the colony, but they wanted it for sentimental reasons, not logical ones. Nonetheless, sometimes it was better to humor organic emotions rather than argue with them. “An unlikely possibility can still be worth exploring,” Fact said finally. “Thus, let us explore.”
Lt. Vonn’s tail wagged, and LeGuin’s whiskers spread in a satisfied grin. “That’s the spirit,” the orange tabby meowed.
* * *
The three officers wandered from room to room in the domed research building. Lt. Vonn guided the cat and fox through the rooms she’d already explored and on towards rooms she hadn’t explored yet. In each one, Lt. LeGuin asked Fact expectantly, “Anything?”
And Fact shook zir head, displaying no trace of excitement, disappointment, or even curiosity. It was not that Fact didn’t feel any emotions regarding the rooms in the domed building, but mostly those feelings were a measured balance of zir patience being tested. Zhe wanted to return to the Initiative and thoroughly explore the digital data they’d uploaded, and exploring the physical building itself seemed like a waste of time.
Then they entered a room with a framed photograph on its wall of a white fox with silver eyes standing beside a bulldog with her wide pug face beaming in a proud grin. The silver-eyed fox showed no such emotion.
“Is that you?” LeGuin asked. His orange tail twitched.
Fact did not reply.
“I don’t think so…” Vonn woofed. The yellow lab was staring intently at a worktable covered in angular mechanical pieces, fiber-optic wiring, and piles of snowy white fabric. Atop the pile fabric rested an oblong metal shape — a silver skull with a pair of silver eyes, gazing sightlessly back at the Tri-Galactic Navy officers.
Fact came closer to the worktable and examined the skull. Gold eyes stared at silver eyes. The silver eyes had specks of real silver in them, like Fact’s eyes were made with real gold. The electromagnetic fingerprint was unmistakable to Fact’s highly sensitive spectroscopic vision system.
Lt. LeGuin’s techno-focal goggles saw the fingerprint as well, and the orange tabby said, “Are these spare parts for you… or… is this your sibling?”
“Can androids have siblings?” Fact asked, philosophically, distantly. Zir eyes continued to stare at their silver reflection, mirrored in the lifeless eyes inside the bare skull.
“Is that what you look like on the inside?” LeGuin asked morbidly.
Lt. Vonn gulped and looked away from the pile of parts, suddenly embarrassed. Even so, she was in charge of the mission, and so she barked, “We should bring the pieces back to the Initiative. If they’re spare parts, you may find them useful. And if they can be assembled into a second android fox…”
“Then I would no longer be unique,” Fact said simply, as if it were a simple statement of fact and not an utterance with complex implications.
“You will always be unique, Fact,” LeGuin said. “But a sibling! Possibly one who knows what happened here? Wouldn’t that be…” The cat hesitated, drew in a breath, and seemed to tone down his excitement. “…valuable?”
“Yes,” Fact agreed, but there was an unusual degree of hesitation in zir voice, and zir fluffy tail had begun to sway in a way that would have been nervous were zhe an organic fox. Fact convinced zirself that zir tail swayed only for extra balance, but zhe didn’t know why zhe suddenly felt less steady on zir feet. Too many possibilities and questions, all unpredicted and unpredictable, had opened up before zir. Fact was not used to such uncertainty. Zir predictive algorithms far outpaced those of any organic lifeform, and zhe was used to seeing zir options laid out before zirself in a logical manner.
Fact had never felt so much like an organic lifeform before, lost and confused, unsure of zir own feelings.
* * *
Back aboard the Initiative, Fact could not avoid helping with the construction of the alternate android fox. Lt. LeGuin was an excellent engineer, but Fact had experience with this particular puzzle. Zhe had removed zir own limbs before, one at a time, to check on their condition and tune them for more efficient performance. Zhe knew how to smooth the synthetic fur over zir mechanical skeleton and latch the pieces into place. Zhe could do it from touch alone, without looking at the pieces.
So, while Fact would have preferred to keep a respectful distance from the assembly of the silver-eyed android, zhe ended up doing almost all of the work.
Fact felt strangely naked as zhe worked with skeletal pieces that mirrored zir own limbs. Even though zhe wore zir uniform, and zir own synthetic fur was firmly in place, zhe knew that the other officers in the engineering bay, cats and dogs who demurely avoided zir eyes as zhe worked, were seeing what zhe looked like on the inside, displayed antiseptically for them in the form of a skeleton exactly like zir own laid out on the worktable in front of zir.
The strange feeling of nakedness eased once all of the pieces of synthetic fur, soft and white as zir own, were latched into place. Fact immediately insisted on synthesizing an appropriate outfit for zir double to wear. This new android was not a member of the Tri-Galactic Navy — at least, not yet — and could not wear a uniform. However, Fact programmed the specifications of zir own uniform into the synthesizer and then altered the colors — instead of the red, gold, or blue of various TGN uniforms, zhe chose simple black.
Lt. Vonn watched as one android fox dressed the other with care. She’d stayed in engineering to observe the construction of Fact’s double, or possibly littermate, since any unusual entity brought aboard the Initiative needed to be monitored by security. Purely a precaution, she was sure. There was no officer more trustworthy than Fact. More beings like Fact could only be a benefit to the Initiative, the Tri-Galactic Navy at large, and really, even the universe.
“Why aren’t there more androids like you?” the yellow lab asked Fact as zhe finished adjusting the collar around zir double’s neck.
“I believe the more reasonable question,” Fact said, “is why is there even one of me?”
“Two now,” Lt. Leguin meowed.
The newly constructed white fox looked good in black, even laid out stiffly on the engineering worktable. The sheer fabric of the faux-uniform offset the new fox’s fluffy silicon fur in a striking, eye-catching way. Stunning. Though the blankly staring silver eyes gave the new fox an eerie, statue-like quality, possessed by none of the animation — the life — that flowed through Fact’s circuitry.
“None of the Tri-Galactic Navy engineers who have analyzed my protonic brain understand how it works.” Fact’s left ear twitched in an uncharacteristic display of emotion, and the tip of zir fluffy tail twitched in a way that provided no useful counterbalance. Zhe looked troubled. “They cannot replicate the energy patterns. If my brain were ever to fully shut down, they would not be able to restart it.”
“That’s not so different from feline and canine brains,” Lt. Vonn observed, tail wagging tentatively. She seemed to want to cheer the small android up. If they were not both officers of the Tri-Galactic Navy and on duty to boot, she’d have liked to sweep the dainty fox up in a big hug.
“So far as I’ve been able to tell,” Lt. LeGuin added, “Fact is not particularly different from organic lifeforms in any meaningful way.”
“I appreciate your attempts to reassure me,” Fact said, ears standing perfectly straight and tail perfectly still once again. “However, they are misplaced. My internal functioning is extremely different from that of organic lifeforms, and while that is not a source of significant concern for me, it does present certain logistical problems. I do not have a doctor or medical bay aboard this ship, or anywhere in the colonized universe, who can tend to my body — or brain — if they stop working properly.”
“If it’s so impossible to make a brain like yours work,” Lt. Vonn woofed, “then why did we go to the trouble of constructing this double?”
Fact’s narrow muzzle quirked into an expression that was almost a smile. “This android’s brain is already running. It has been running all along, since before we found it. It has been, for lack of a better word, in sleep mode.” Fact’s golden eyes nearly twinkled as zhe spoke, almost a sign of mischievous joy. Except clearly not. Fact was merely presenting a fact, a simple one that zhe hadn’t yet had an opportunity to mention. Zhe did not feel especially clever for knowing something the others hadn’t known, nor for sharing a secret with another lifeform.
“Shall we…” Lt. LeGuin paused awkwardly and his orange ears splayed showing confusion and uncertainty. “..turn it on?”
Lt. Vonn shifted her stance subtly, becoming more alert, more ready. The muscles in her legs and back tightened, her tail stilled, and her paw flexed, ready to reach for her blazor. No one else in the engineering bay would have noticed the change, but Fact did. And zhe said, “Do not worry, Lieutenant Vonn. This android looks to be completely constructed, but I have not engaged the spinal connection in the neck. When turned on, my double will be effectively paralyzed.”
“Is that wise?” Lt. LeGuin asked. “Or… kind? We’re talking about an android like you. Would you like to be brought back to consciousness, years after your colony disappeared, and be kept strategically paralyzed?”
“I would understand the precaution,” Fact assured zir friend. Then with a deft movement of zir delicate paws, zhe opened the panel at the base of zir double’s skull and switched zir double’s brain into a fully operational mode.
The alternate android’s silver eyes blinked. “I am awake again,” the silver-eyed fox said.
“Again?” Fact asked. “Then you have been operational before.”
“I have,” the silver-eyed fox agreed, staring straight up. Zhe couldn’t turn zir head yet, not until Fact connected zir spine at the base of zir neck.
“Do you have a name?” Fact asked, leaning over the other fox so zhe could see zir.
Lt. LeGuin and Lt. Vonn stood back silently, watching the eerie conversation between two foxes who looked preternaturally alike. One of Fact was unusual. Two was mind-bendingly strange. LeGuin’s snaky orange tail and Vonn’s brush of a yellow one both swayed slowly as they watched in rapt fascination.
“Do you have a name?” the new fox countered.
“Yes, I am Fact.”
“Then,” the other fox answered, “I am Myth.”
“What do you mean?” Fact asked.
“What would you like me to mean?” Myth asked, smiling more warmly than any officer onboard the Initiative had ever seen Fact smile. The delicate arctic fox-like features took on a wolfish, predatory tone when graced with such a smile.
Fact shook zir head as if clearing away a confusing matter. “Myth, I would like to welcome you to the Tri-Galactic Navy Spaceship Initiative. I am Lieutenant Fact, and these cats and dogs,” Fact gestured around zirself to the other officers who’d left their engineering stations and gathered to watch, “are my fellow officers.”
Lt. LeGuin’s orange ears flattened, and he hissed at the other engineers, “Get back to your stations. What do you think this is? A theater performance?”
“It is only natural to be curious,” Fact observed, unbothered. “I, myself, am curious,” zhe added. “You and I are both artificial lifeforms with protonic brains. I was found by a cargo vessel several years ago on Thomicron Eta, fully constructed, but with no experiential memories. The Initiative, a science and discovery vessel, returned to the colony on Thomicron Eta today to execute a more thorough exploration. We found you.”
“Deconstructed,” Lt. Vonn said.
“More accurately,” Lt. LeGuin said, “in a pile of disconnected pieces. We don’t know if you’ve ever been fully assembled before.” After a pause where his ears flicked and his tail twitched, he added, “Have you?”
“If not,” Lt. Vonn barked eagerly, “happy birthday!?”
“Why can I not sit up?” Myth asked.
“A safety precaution,” Fact said. “Nothing more. Please, tell us, do you have memories of the colony on Thomicron Eta?”
“Where is Doctor Chandra Day?” Myth asked.
“According to the colony’s records,” Fact said to his fellow officers, “Dr. Day was the bulldog in the photograph from the laboratory where we found Myth.”
“That was a photograph of Myth, assembled and conscious,” Lt. LeGuin said.
“We do not know that,” Fact said simply. “There could be another android.”
“A third one?” Lt. Vonn woofed.
Myth’s wolfish smile softened. “So thorough,” zhe said. “But in this case, the orange feline is correct, and the answer is the simple one: I was Dr. Day’s pride and joy — her most successful creation.”
Canine and feline eyes — Lt. Vonn’s and LeGuin’s — turned to Fact to watch zir reaction to the blunt news that zhe had not been zir creator’s favorite creation. But zhe showed no reaction. Lt. Vonn found herself thinking that Fact would have an excellent poker face, and with zir ability to calculate mathematical probabilities far more quickly than any other officer aboard, zhe could completely dominate at the officers’ weekend poker games. Lt. Vonn’s muzzle quirked into a lopsided smile. She would enjoy watching that. Fact could seem naive and innocent at times, but zhe was far from helpless.
When none of them responded, Myth continued, “I love that photograph. Where is Dr. Day?”
A bold statement of emotion that caused Fact to blink in surprise, LeGuin’s tail to twitch in concern, and Vonn to wonder how much emotion Fact hid underneath zir cool, placid exterior. What emotions lurked inside zir complex circuitry? And could Vonn bring them out to be seen?
But the yellow lab was letting her own emotions get away with her. She needed to stay focused on the matter at paw. “Myth,” she woofed, taking her role as the ranking officer in the engineering bay very seriously, “I am very sorry to inform you that all of the organic life in the Thomicron Eta colony seems to have been destroyed by an unknown phenomenon several years ago, before Fact was discovered. I know this must be hard news…”
“I warned them.” Myth’s silver eyes stared upward, expressionless and metallic. Zir chest rose and fell, clothed in the black fabric of the faux-uniform, an illusion Fact was familiar with.
Neither android needed to breathe, but they’d each been programmed to simulate the subtle, beating rhythms of organic life. Fact had experimented with repressing zir own passive breathing algorithms and had found zir fellow officers were made anxious by the change. Zir stillness felt uncanny to them; the slightly erratic rhythm of simulated breathing put them at ease.
“What did you warn them about?” Lt. LeGuin asked, his voice low and tentative.
“The phenomenon in the sky?” Fact asked.
Myth’s gaze flicked to the side until zir silver eyes caught Fact’s gold ones. “In the sky, yes. The entity of pure energy appeared in the sky. But it came from deep space.”
“Why do you call it an entity?” Fact asked.
“It’s alive,” Myth said. “As alive as you or I, dear littermate.”
Fact continued to watch Myth, unmoved by the familial appeal of the word ‘littermate,’ but then the carefully chosen word wasn’t truly for Fact. And the word had its intended effect on the organic officers still in the room: Lt. LeGuin shifted his weight from one paw to the other uncomfortably, and the fur on Lt. Vonn’s forehead crinkled in concern.
“Can I sit up now?” Myth asked.
Lt. Vonn answered in a rush, “Of course, this is no interrogation.”
“I am not sure that is wise,” Fact said.
“Your littermate is not our prisoner,” Lt. Vonn woofed. “Zhe is a refugee like you were.”
“I was kept in the cargo vessel’s brig for two months until we reached a star base that was properly outfitted to handle me,” Fact muttered.
“This is no cargo ship. And we know better than to treat an android like a criminal.” Lt. Vonn pointed with a yellow paw at Myth’s prone body and gestured vaguely. “Hook his spine up, or whatever it is you still need to do.”
“As commanded,” Fact said wryly. Zir dainty white paws worked quickly at the base of Myth’s neck, lost in the fluffy white fur overflowing zir collar.
“Much better,” Myth said, tilting zir head from side to side and flicking zir ears as if to test them. Zhe sat up and stretched, reaching zir white paws high above zir head. The movement was so fluid and natural that Lt. Vonn wondered whether zir programming was different from Fact’s or whether Fact’s personality simply exhibited itself through stiffer movements. Though, then, Lt. Vonn wondered if there was a difference between those two ideas at all.
What in fact was the difference between programming and personality?
“Now I would love to answer all of your questions,” Myth said, swinging zir legs around to get off the worktable where zhe’d been assembled. “But I would also love to see this science and discovery vessel we’re on. The Initiative, was it? Can I have a tour? Can we talk while exploring, as it were?”
* * *
The officers conferred and agreed — for very different reasons — that Fact would give Myth a tour of the ship while continuing to debrief zir. Lt. Vonn believed she was giving the two androgynous androids well-needed private, family time. Lt. LeGuin believed Fact would be able to more effectively interface with Myth, discussing issues in short-hand and acquiring knowledge faster, without an organic audience in the way.
Fact knew that zhe was the only officer onboard the Initiative who would have a chance of overpowering Myth if zir unexpected alternate turned out to be hostile. While the two of them were perfectly matched physically, Fact had the advantage of knowing the ship’s layout. Of course, zhe also had the disadvantage of having developed a fondness for all of the organic lifeforms aboard the vessel. Weaker creatures to defend could prove to be liabilities in a confrontation.
Fact led Myth from one area of the ship to the next — skipping past astrophysics and bio-engineering labs quickly and dallying in social areas like the scram-ball court and the after-hours galley. They came to the viewpoint lounge and Fact chose a small table off to one end of the long wrap-around window that stared out at the glittering stars of deep space. A crescent of Thomicron Eta’s blue-green surface could be glimpsed at the very top of the window, and the world’s one yellow moon shone palely far below.
Fact sat down in a chair and gestured for Myth to do the same. Then the two foxes stared at each other, quietly measuring and analyzing.
“Will you agree to have your brain hooked up to mine?” Fact asked.
“That’s a little invasive, don’t you think?” Myth leaned back in zir chair, crossed zir hind paws, and flipped zir fluffy tail over zir lap.
Fact didn’t have to explain that it was the only way to be sure Myth couldn’t lie to zir. They both knew it.
“Why?” Myth asked. Zhe didn’t ask, “Why don’t you trust me?” but the meaning was the same. “You trust them. And you cannot possibly hook their brains up to yours and verify every story they tell you.”
Fact disliked the way that Myth spoke of the organics as “them.” But it was true. Fact could not verify the stories organic lifeforms told zir, and organics had lied to zir before. However, zhe had far more practice interacting with organic lifeforms by now. Whereas the only android zhe had ever encountered before was zirself. And zhe realized, zhe did not trust zirself. Zir own motives and rationales were far too complex and intricate for zir to ever guess from the outside of zirself.
Was this prejudice? Fact wondered. Was zhe prejudiced against zir own kind, simply for being less familiar to zirself?
As the stars glittered beyond the window and other officers enjoyed their quiet, off-duty conversations around them, unconcerned with the complex lives of two androgynous android foxes, Fact processed zir own concerns: did zhe truly believe there could be a sinister connection between an android identical to zirself (except for the silver eyes) and the disappearance of the Thomicron Eta colony? Did zhe truly suspect Myth of some sort of wrong-doing or evil intentions?
Why had zir brain been transmitting a distress signal when zhe was found all those years ago?
Had Fact been involved in the destruction of the colony? Did zhe suspect zirself?
Who was zhe?
Sometimes looking in a mirror is the hardest thing.
What if zir crewmates were wrong to trust zir? What if Myth knew something that could make zir turn on them all?
“I will consent,” Myth said. “Did you bring the appropriate supplies from Dr. Day’s laboratory?”
“I did,” Fact said, placing zir paw over the uniform pocket bulging with the coiled up cord. Zhe had recognized the shape of the cord’s connector — the same at both ends, each end designed to fit the base of zir own skull — while still in the lab and had pocketed it. Zhe had felt safer asking for the brain connection in a public space, but now that Myth had agreed, Fact suddenly felt the need for privacy.
Zhe did not want the other officers of the TGN Initiative watching as zir brain was bombarded with knowledge zhe could not predict. “Come to my quarters,” Fact said, rising from the chair. Zhe led Myth through the viewpoint lounge, stone-faced while zir counterpart smiled and waved to officers zhe didn’t even know. Fact didn’t know how or why Myth mimicked organic behavior so much more fluidly than zhe did.
* * *
Fact’s quarters were like any other officer’s aboard the Initiative: a small studio with a cot and a desk, a simple bureau, and a personal-sized synthesizer optimized for food generation set into the wall.
The cot was unslept-in. The desk was neat. The bureau was empty, save for two extra duty uniforms, a dress uniform, and a pair of off-duty clothes much like the black faux-uniform zhe’d synthesized for Myth. Except in dark turquoise blue. Fact had had little occasion for wearing the turquoise jumpsuit, but it was good to be prepared.
The main extravagances in zir simple room were an oil painting, hand-painted by zirself, rendering the Mandelbrot set in meticulous detail — an experiment in artistic self-expression that had had mixed results — and a Venus flytrap in a clay pot on the desk.
Fact had named the Venus flytrap Snappy and lovingly fed it synthesized protein-substitute by paw while telling it, “You are a good and pretty plant,” every week. The evidence was not conclusive as to whether plants responded to positive vocalizations, but Fact had grown accustomed to the routine and found it comforting, whether the plant did or not.
As there was only one chair at zir desk, Fact sat down on the disused cot and Myth sat down beside zir. Fact reached behind zir own head and fit the cable connector snugly into the base of zir skull. It tingled. The cord was long enough for Fact and Myth to have several feet between them, but Myth sat close enough that the cord sagged down into their laps. Myth tilted zir head forward, and Fact plugged the other end of the cord into the base of zir skull.
The connection was made.
The connection was nothing and everything.
It was the most intimate experience of either of their lives. Two pairs of eyes seeing the world from different angles; two mouths quirking into confused expressions; two pairs of ears twitching and flattening. Everything doubled.
And yet everything stayed the same, because the inside of Myth’s mind — of Fact’s mind? — of each mind felt the same as the inside of the other. The pathways, the patterns, the programs… They were all so similar, and it was such a relief to feel totally and completely understood. At total peace. The bliss of complete conformity.
And yet, the similarities made the differences stand out all the more starkly.
Myth had memories of living on Thomicron Eta, working with Dr. Chandra Day, playing with the children in the science institute’s daycare as a way of learning, and of the terror the colonists conveyed as the pure energy being approached. Zhe remembered living under the name Fact — the name given to zir by Dr. Day — until Dr. Day powered zir down, ready to pass the name on to her newer, improved, golden-eyed creation.
Fact had memories of waking up on Thomicron Eta with no knowledge of zir origins other than a faintly recalled whisper in zir ear: “Your name is Fact.” Zhe remembered joining the Tri-Galactic Navy, testing out of years’ worth of required classes, training at double speed due to not needing sleep, and slowly carving out a home aboard the Initiative once zhe’d become a full officer.
Fact had memories of analyzing and over-analyzing the behavior zhe saw among organic lifeforms, carefully choosing which behaviors to emulate and how much; Myth had memories of trial and error, interacting with kittens and puppies like zhe was one of them, learning through mistakes and forging on.
Fact’s social algorithms were far more complicated, nuanced, and powerful. Myth’s were simpler and, in some cases, more effective.
And beneath it all, glittering like a star at the vertex of a swirling vortex of dust clouds and nebulae, was the memory Fact feared. The connection between zir and the pure energy entity. The reason Thomicron Eta had been destroyed.
Zir brain — both of zir brains — were powered by energy Dr. Chandra Day had siphoned from the entity. No wonder other scientists had failed to replicate the power source inside of Fact’s brain; they were recreating the containing matrix without the juice that had jumpstarted it.
Suddenly, Fact and Myth’s combined consciousness was filled with questions: would the pure energy entity come back now that the Initiative had come to Thomicron Eta? Could the entity ever forgive them for Dr. Day’s transgression? Was it wrong to keep the energy that had been stolen from the entity to power their own brains? Could they continue to live without their very lives being a crime against an entity of great beauty and complexity?
But also great destruction…
Fact yanked on the cord dangling between zir and Myth, and the connector pulled out of the base of zir skull with a pop. Double vision, double thinking resolved down to one view, one set of thoughts, chaotic and disordered as those thoughts might be.
With the loss of the deeper connection, Fact suddenly needed a shallower connection to steady zirself, and zhe held a paw out to Myth who grasped the paw with zir own eagerly. They held each other’s paws, clinging tightly, anchoring themselves to each other while they reconciled themselves with existing in only one brain, being one entity instead of two, again.
“I’m sorry I doubted you,” Fact said.
“It was rational,” Myth said.
“Nonetheless, do you forgive me?” Fact had to ask, because zhe no longer knew what Myth was thinking; zhe could no longer access the thoughts directly, intrinsically, sharing in them as they happened. The blindness was deafening.
Myth squeezed Fact’s paw, and Fact recognized the motion as a comforting gesture. Zhe smiled, acknowledging the deft exchange of information between them — agreement expressed through a simple change in pressure. There was such simplicity in communication between two beings in as complete an understanding and alignment as Myth and Fact.
“We have work to do,” Fact said.
* * *
Fact briefed the ship’s captain on the situation while experiencing complex emotions not dissimilar to an organic lifeform feeling shame. Fact had not even existed when the bulldog scientist, Dr. Day, had siphoned energy from a complex spaceborn lifeform to power zir brain, and zhe had not yet been activated when the pure energy lifeform had come to Thomicron Eta to exact revenge. And yet Fact felt responsible. Zir very existence was inextricably intertwined with the crime Dr. Day had committed against the pure energy lifeform and also with the crime the lifeform had committed against the colony in return. None of it would have happened without Fact and Myth.
Fact supposed zir feelings on the subject were similar to those of the cats and dogs of Earth who felt irrationally responsible for crimes humanity had committed against themselves, the sub-sentient animals of Earth, and the Earth itself before uplifting their feline and canine companions. Emotions can provide useful data, but sometimes they’re nothing more than an inconvenience.
Fact tried to focus on the important questions: would the pure energy lifeform cause further damage to Tri-Galactic Navy colonies? How could the lifeform be tracked down? What restitution could be made to it? Could peace be forged? And how could Fact zirself continue to make the best use of the stolen gift of life zhe’d been given?
Fact and Myth worked side by side, two arctic foxes, in the engineering lab. They shared a console, because while Myth had been given temporary permissions to access the Initiative’s computer based on Fact vouching for zir; only going through the academy training program and becoming a true officer of the Tri-Galactic Navy could give zir full security clearances.
Their white paws danced over the brightly lit display screens, programming algorithms designed to track the residual radiation patterns left behind by the pure energy lifeform. Even while programming, Fact observed that Myth was more likely to take chances, experiment with half-formed ideas and test them before formulating them in whole. And it worked. Not always, but often enough that Myth’s experimental programming style saved them time as they worked together.
Once Fact polished and finished the algorithm Myth had cobbled together, they were able to use the Initiative’s long range scanners to track the pure energy lifeform’s residual traces to a nebula three star systems further along the spiral arm. They relayed the information to the bridge, and the captain commanded the navigation officers to set a course. The flight could have been accomplished in as little as twenty seconds, even without engaging the subspace drive, but it would have strained the ambi-pulse engines. The captain chose a more leisurely pace, leaving Fact and Myth with an awkward twenty minutes to spare.
“You two sure work well together,” Lt. LeGuin meowed with a twist of jealousy in his voice from his own station on the other side of the pulsing, glowing purple column of the ambi-pulse drive. “What do you think you’re going to do after this, Myth? Are you going to join the Tri-Galactic Navy like Fact did?” the orange tabby asked.
“I don’t know…” Myth said.
Fact was unsure as to whether zhe should be surprised by that answer. On one paw, Myth’s whimsical ability to make and commit to decisions on an impulse seemed like it would have led zir to follow in Fact’s paw-steps without hesitation. On the other paw, zir erratic nature was most likely better suited to a less rigid structure than that offered by the militaristic hierarchies of the Tri-Galactic Navy. “There are some very good university planets where you could pursue research in a more academic, less structured setting,” Fact said. “I would, of course, highly recommend you.”
“I’m not sure,” Myth continued, “that I want to do research. I’m not sure that I want to be a scientist.”
“You would be very good at it,” Fact offered, reeling internally from Myth’s ability to behave so unpredictably when only an hour ago their very brains had been joined. Prediction as a life strategy was proving much more limited in its abilities than Fact would have… predicted.
For the first time in zir existence, Fact frowned, zir narrow muzzle twisting into an expression of dissatisfaction, or perhaps outright unhappiness.
Then Lt. Vonn walked into the engine room, yellow brush of a tail wagging behind her. Fact’s expression immediately returned to zir usual, neutral composition.
“The captain wants you two foxes on the bridge for when we try to contact this pure energy lifeform you’ve discovered,” Lt. Vonn woofed. “I’ve come to escort you.”
“Of course,” Fact said. “Let me transfer our work from here up to the bridge.” Zhe turned back to the engineering console and tapped out the instructions necessary to upload their work from the engineering computers to the ship’s main computer. While zhe worked, Myth watched zir closely.
Then Myth turned to Lt. Vonn and said, zir tone warm and sweet as fresh honey, “You are a very handsome dog, Lt. Vonn. Do you have a less formal name?”
“Uh… Natalie,” Lt. Vonn woofed, her wagging tail slowing its tempo in confusion.
“Natalie, that’s lovely,” Myth said. “Would you be interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with me? I think you are a very pleasing organic lifeform, and if you find me pleasing as well, then I think we could enjoy a relationship that involved both emotional and physical components. Does this interest you?”
By the end of Myth’s speech, Lt. Vonn’s tail was as still as a statue, and her eyes had widened in shock or terror. “Uh… no?” she woofed. “Thank you… for asking?” she stammered. She took a few steps back and bumped into an unmanned console. “But… no.”
Myth blinked zir silver eyes, flashed a nonchalant smile, and said, “No worries. Let us never think of this again.”
“Uh… okay,” Lt. Vonn said, straightening up after her collision with the console. Her tail started to wag again, much more tentatively.
Lt. LeGuin laughed. “Just to look at the two of you,” he said, “you seem like exact copies. And then…” He shrugged, at a loss for words.
“Our programming is very different,” Myth said.
Fact tilted zir head, staring at zir silver-eyed double. “More different than I had realized.”
Myth shrugged. “I was an experiment; you were a perfection. The problem with perfection is that it’s less flexible than experimentation.”
“Are you foxes ready to go to the bridge?” Lt. Vonn asked, clearly still a little discomfited by Myth’s recent and extremely unexpected proposal.
“Yes,” Fact said.
Lt. Vonn led the way. When they arrived, she showed the two androids to a console at the back, behind Captain Pierre Jacques’ central command station. The bridge’s viewscreen loomed across the front half of the room, wide and dark, but not the empty darkness of space — the crenulated, textured darkness of a nebula, green like moss on a slick ocean rock at twilight, almost hidden in the long stretching shadows at the end of the day.
“We’ll enter the nebula soon,” Captain Pierre Jacques meowed from the middle of the bridge. “Are you ready to attempt communicating with the lifeform?”
“We will be,” Fact said.
“Very good.” The captain purred loudly. Then he turned his attention to the navigation officers manning the consoles at the front of the bridge.
With the captain’s and Lt. Vonn’s focus elsewhere, Fact glanced at Myth, caught zir silver gaze, and spoke in a low voice: “I do not recall from our shared memories earlier that you had any interest in pursuing a romantic relationship with an organic lifeform.”
Fact knew that Myth’s programming allowed zir to make sudden, unpredictable choices, but zir romantic proposal to Lt. Vonn was especially surprising. Or perhaps — and Fact was surprised to realize this about zirself — zhe found the idea of a romantic entanglement between Natalie and Myth particularly distressing; perhaps in a way that could be described as jealousy? Zhe was not sure.
“I don’t,” Myth said simply but quietly, matching Fact’s low voice. “But you do–”
Fact began to object but found that the situation was too complex for zir to know whether zhe reasonably could object. Zhe certainly spent a lot of time thinking about Lt. Vonn. Did Myth understand zir feelings better than zhe did zirself?
Myth continued: “–and I wanted to make sure, as much as I can, that the yellow canine is truly interested in you for the right reasons.”
Latching onto entirely the wrong part of Myth’s statement, Fact asked, “So you do agree that Lt. Vonn is interested in me?”
An organic lifeform might have smiled fondly — meaning well but seeming condescending. Myth merely blinked zir silver eyes and said, “Of course. The autonomic physical response to your presence is clear.”
Again, an organic lifeform might have smiled. But Fact simply nodded. “What should I do? You are far better at–”
“Excuse me?” the captain meowed.
Fact’s gold eyes widened. Zhe had been so distracted by zir whispered conversation with Myth that zhe’d entirely tuned out everything else happening on the bridge. Looking at the viewscreen, zhe saw translucent, pearlescent orbs strung across the mossy green darkness. They had found the pure energy lifeform. “Yes, Captain, please accept my apologies. We will begin transmitting signals in various frequencies.”
Fact started the transmission, and the pearlescent orbs on the viewscreen contracted, growing smaller, then the string of them swung to the left side of the screen. Another string of orbs appeared from the right side, then another. As the orbs contracted from wide, amorphous spheres to well-defined pinpoints, they brightened, glowing in rhythmic pulses.
“The lifeform is reacting to our signal,” Myth said.
“Analyze the response for patterns,” the captain meowed, but he hadn’t needed to. The work was already underway.
Myth’s paws moved deftly over the console as if zhe’d been working with the shipboard computer for months rather than minutes. Apparently, some of Fact’s skills and knowledge had been transferred during their mental connection. Fact had carefully firewalled all of zir classified knowledge, but the way their minds had entangled, exploring each other’s memories and sharing thoughts, it was hard to tell how much of zir unclassified knowledge had been automatically copied from one brain to the other.
The pulsing orbs on the viewscreen swirled, chasing each other in chains, pulling away from the ship. The chains came together at a nexus; a larger orb, bulbous and lopsided. Altogether, the chains and bulbous nexus looked like a deep sea creature — the tentacles of a giant, glowing, translucent space squid coming together at the creature’s mantle.
Looking at the pure energy entity, Fact felt less separated from organic lifeforms than zhe ever had before. This was the source of zir life, and this was life. Strange, alien, deep space life. But life. Not artificial. Not simulated.
“I’m getting a signal!” Myth said, silver eyes glinting.
Fact looked down at the console. The computer was running the signal through every algorithm that zhe and Myth had devised. None of them made sense of the patterns, but the patterns were undeniably there.
As each algorithm failed, Myth altered it, trying again and again, incrementally experimenting. But that wasn’t enough. Fact could see Myth’s strategy would never work. “Wait,” zhe said, taking over the console. Zhe stopped the simple, mathematical signal they’d been transmitting and instead began transmitting large chunks of the computer’s database — novels, music, videos, culture en masse, all of it full of language.
“We were trying to translate the entity’s language,” Fact explained. “But a lifeform as large and complex, as immensely intricate as this entity may well be infinitely more intelligent than the Initiative’s computers.”
“You’re relying on a blob of glowing space energy to be smarter than our ship’s computers?” the captain asked, aghast.
Fact had no further answer than a simple, “Yes, Captain.”
The purring deep in the captain’s throat turned to a growly rumble, and his tail lashed. But moments later, Fact was vindicated by a message appearing on zir console: <Understand. Care not. Why here?>
Fact relayed the message to the main viewscreen, where it appeared beneath the image of the pure energy entity, now coiling its glowing tentacles up in roiling loops around its bulbous mantle. It was beautiful.
“Captain,” Fact said, “I know it is traditional for the captain of the ship to address newly encountered lifeforms, but if I may, I would like to take the lead here.”
“It’s a little more than traditional,” the captain grumbled. “It’s standard protocol.”
“Technically,” Fact said, “it is not.”
The captain sounded surprised as he said, “Are you sure?”
“I have memorized all of the manuals, Captain.”
“Yes, yes, I suppose you have.” The captain’s triangular ears flicked as he considered the situation. “I must admit that you are clearly the most knowledgeable officer onboard when it comes to this particular entity, and also the one with the most direct investment…”
“Captain, if you are worried–” Fact began, but the captain cut zir off.
“Indeed not, Lieutenant Fact. I trust your loyalty to this ship and the Tri-Galactic Navy’s interests implicitly.” After a brief pause while the entire bridge crew awaited the captain’s decision, he said, “Go ahead, Lieutenant.”
Fact sometimes wondered whether the captain’s complete trust in zir was misplaced. Just because zhe didn’t suffer from the same failings as organic officers didn’t mean zhe didn’t have failings. Simply different ones. But this was not the time to argue.
Fact typed zir message into the computer console and the words were relayed both through a transmitted signal to the energy entity and displayed on the main viewscreen for the rest of the bridge crew to see:
<We know one of our lifeforms siphoned energy from you, most likely without your consent, and we apologize. We are explorers from the Tri-Galactic Navy, as a group. But two of us, individually, are lifeforms constructed from the energy siphoned from you. I call myself Fact; the other calls zirself Myth.>
The glowing tentacles swayed on the viewscreen, as if ocean currents flowed through the mossy darkness of the nebula. Yet every motion the pure energy entity made must be an expression of its own, since there were no currents affecting it. Fact wished zhe could understand the entity’s movements with the same clarity zhe had developed for understanding the physical gestures of organic dogs and cats.
<Still not care,> the entity eventually responded. <Leave or destroy.>
Fact experienced a sensation of profound disappointment. Zhe had only known about the pure energy entity for a few hours, and yet the connection zhe felt to it was… powerful. Zir brain patterns were fundamentally influenced by the energy that flowed through zir physical circuitry, and that energy was unlike any energy Tri-Galactic Navy scientists had been able to find or synthesize… except for the energy of this entity. The same life force flowed through zir brain as glowed in those amorphous tentacles.
<We cannot leave,> Fact typed, feeling hollow inside, <until we know you will not destroy any more colonies. The death and devastation you caused on Thomicron Eta was unacceptable, and we need to know it will not happen again.>
<Siphoning unacceptable,> the entity answered, its tentacles reaching outward, closer and closer to the Initiative. <Destroy colony fair.>
“That’s a rather simplistic moral view,” the captain grumbled. “Especially coming from an entity that’s apparently more intelligent than our ship’s entire computer system.” He sighed and put a paw over his muzzle, thinking. Then he concluded, “Regardless, we don’t want to cause a fight, and it sounds like if we leave the entity alone, it will leave our colonies and vessels alone as well.”
“That seems likely,” Fact agreed. “But we will learn nothing more about the entity without further contact.”
The roiling tentacles continued to grow closer to the Initiative, and Lt. Vonn began pacing from one side of the bridge to the other, restlessly. Her paws could not protect her fellow officers from the glowing energy outside of the vessel, and while the ship’s force shields were resilient and designed to rotate frequencies, they were ethereal and didn’t give Lt. Vonn the sense of visceral safety she felt when she could protect herself and her crewmates with her own paws.
“I’m not convinced the entity is interested in further contact,” the captain said, seemingly ignoring the looming threat of its tentacles. “But you may make the suggestion. If the entity’s not interested, then please forge a no-contact agreement. Once the entity agrees, we’ll mark this exchange down as an official peace treaty in our logs — no matter how informal — and classify this nebula as off-limits for all further exploration.”
“As you say, Captain.” Fact shared a glance with Myth that utterly failed to communicate the depth of emotion zhe was experiencing or to allow zir to tell if Myth shared in it. Zhe typed into the console:
<We are explorers, and we would like to learn more about you and to share more about ourselves. Speaking personally, greater knowledge of the lifeform who led to my own existence would be invaluable. However, if you prefer, we will leave this nebula, and none of our vessels will ever return. In exchange, we ask that you leave our vessels and colonies alone as well.>
<Agreed,> the entity transmitted without hesitation. <Leave. Now.>
“Set a course back to Thomicron Eta,” the captain meowed, and moments later the Initiative flew away from the pure energy entity and its nebula. The glowing tentacles disappeared into the mossy green darkness like an anemone withdrawing inside itself at the touch of an overly curious paw.
* * *
The Initiative returned to the base on Thomicron Eta and the crew finished their studies, learning everything they could about the planet and the final days of the colony, with the help of Myth. Organic crew members seemed to enjoy seeing the two android foxes working side by side and frequently asked each of them about how nice they must find it to spend time together. But in truth, Fact and Myth had already shared all of the knowledge they needed or wanted to regarding their lives so far, and they found little benefit in being together. Although, Fact would have had to acknowledge that they worked together more smoothly than zhe could with any organic lifeform. But sometimes, it’s the irregularities, the surprising friction that makes life interesting.
When the mission to Thomicron Eta was over, the Initiative reported to the nearest star base, and Myth took zir leave of them.
As the Initiative flew away from the star base, Fact sat at a table in the viewpoint lounge, surrounded by glittering stars and darkness. In the distance, the star base where they’d left Myth was still visible, looking like the brightest star.
Many officers in the viewpoint lounge had drinks or meals on their tables in front of them. Fact’s table was empty.
Lt. Vonn approached the table and asked, “Do you miss zir?”
Fact looked up at the yellow Labrador, and Lt. Vonn’s tail immediately started to wag.
Lt. Vonn’s tail wagged harder.
“Would you like to sit down?” Fact asked. “Join me?”
Lt. Vonn’s tail began wagging so hard that she batted one of her paws at it, as if embarrassed by her own enthusiasm. “I would like that,” she said. She pulled out the chair across from Fact’s and settled down into it, half rising and resettling twice before seeming truly comfortable. “Now, as I was asking…” She looked very serious, her muzzle strained tight. “Do you miss your… How do you think of each other? Littermates? Siblings?”
“Androids designed by the same scientist,” Fact said, “with brains powered by energy siphoned from the same entity.”
“That’s a bit of a mouthful,” Lt. Vonn said. “Let’s go with littermates.”
Fact nodded acquiescence, but zhe was still thinking about how zhe had smiled at Lt. Vonn moments before. The smile had served no practical purpose, but it had seemed to make Lt. Vonn happy. And Fact enjoyed seeing Lt. Vonn happy. Smiling at the yellow lab was what Myth would have wanted zir to do. It was what Myth would have done zirself. Fact was still carrying some of Myth’s programming inside of zir. And zhe had mixed feelings about that.
But zhe did enjoy seeing the yellow Labrador smile.
“To answer your question,” Fact said, “no. I do not miss… my littermate.”
Lt. Vonn looked troubled or maybe just surprised and confused, so Fact decided to explain.
“Myth and I have so much in common, it feels redundant for us to both be here. I do anticipate zir future communications to me with much pleasure. I am excited to learn of zir progress in the art program zhe has enrolled in, and I think I would like to have a piece of art created by zir on the walls of my quarters.”
Lt. Vonn grinned, and her tail tried to wag beside her on the chair, but it mostly just thumped against the chair’s arm. “That’s sweet.”
Fact did not tell Lt. Vonn about Myth’s plan to return to the pure energy entity’s nebula some day and attempt communicating with the creature whose existence had spawned their own. It was important that Myth have no official ties to the Tri-Galactic Navy when zhe did so. The two androids had also agreed it would be a good idea to give the entity a few years of solitude before bothering it again. Although, with a lifeform of such alien complexity, it was hard to know how it experienced time.
“I’ve never seen your quarters,” Lt. Vonn said, once again looking almost embarrassed, this time by her own forwardness. “Do you have any art in them now?”
“One piece,” Fact answered. Before meeting Myth, zhe might have left zir answer at that. Simple. Functional. Instead, zhe decided to try something new and added, “But I do have a pet — a Venus flytrap. A very interesting and beautiful plant. Would you like to see it?”
Lt. Vonn almost jumped out of her chair, broad grin across her muzzle. “I’d love to!”
Read more about these characters in Tri-Galactic Trek!