by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, July 2019
Sebas7 opened her mechanical eyes to see limpid human eyes staring at her. She recognized them as human eyes from using a pattern matching algorithm on her massive internal database of labelled images.
“Hello, friend. Don’t worry, you’re perfectly safe.”
The words had meaning in Sebas7’s mechanical ears, because she had been programmed to understand forty-five different languages, including the language most popular in this corner of the galaxy, Solanese.
“My name is Ayla, and I had a roboticist on Crossroads Station design you as a companion for me on my long fishing voyages.” The fleshy folds around the human’s sound-making orifice twisted upward. Sebas7 recognized the gesture, again from her extensive databases. A smile.
An urge deep in Sebas7’s programming swelled. She desired to respond to the human, and she found her own sound-making orifice exuding an atonal hum. With a little work, she formed the hum into the Solanese words, “It is nice to meet you. What are we fishing for?”
Ayla’s smile widened, which satisfied a craving deep in Sebas7’s programming, and then the human proceeded to tell her about the fish-like organisms that floated through the syrupy orange clouds of New Jupiter. Their coppery scales were a valuable material for building semi-permeable membranes, such as in air filters. Their bulbous eyes bent light in ways that no synthetic substance yet rivaled. And their brains, supposedly, held psychoactive properties. Ayla sold every part of each fish she caught.
As they sailed Ayla’s rickety old Sun Schooner along the cloudy seas of New Jupiter, Ayla and Sebas7 talked like old friends, telling tales and sharing secrets. Of course, Sebas7’s tales and secrets were synthesized from her massive databases, but they effectively made Ayla happy — and that fulfilled a need in Sebas7’s programming that was isometric to happiness.
When they returned to Crossroads Station with a cargo hold full of gas cloud fishies, Sebas7 rolled through the halls of the station, following Ayla as she ran her errands, like a dog following her master. She was shorter than most of the bipedal aliens she saw, and her semi-spherical metal carapace was much simpler. Her limbs were limited to a few repair kit tools — mecho-screwdriver, mini-welder, etc. — on extendo-knobs.
Sebas7 wasn’t exactly dissatisfied with her mechanical body. It was simply that she’d been designed to please Ayla, and she felt she could please Ayla so much better with… well, perhaps some more limbs. Maybe some extendo-brackets on her wheels to let her be taller. You know, closer to human height. Or maybe… mechanical wings? Yes, those would be nice.
When Ayla stopped by Maradia’s Robot Emporium to thank the roboticist for her wonderful work, Sebas7 rolled sheepishly up to the human who’d created her, tugged on her pant-leg with her plier tool, and hummed, “I have a few ideas for ways to improve my mechanical housing.”
Amused, the roboticist knelt down beside her creation and said, “Is that so, little robot? Tell me what you want, and your wish is my command.”
Sebas7 described grandiose plans for herself, all the while waving her mechno-screwdriver and mini-welder dangerously. She only cut a small hole in the fabric of Maradia’s pants leg. She tried to seal it back up with her welder, but it turned out that the roboticist’s clothes weren’t made from metal.
Before the excited little robot could do more damage, Maradia outfitted her with a proto-type she’d made while designing a pair of wings for a small mouse-like alien. The mechanical wings fit on the back of Sebas7’s hemispherical shell quite well. They looked quite handsome, quite fetching, Sebas7 thought. She could see the admiration in Ayla’s eyes. Or perhaps it was amusement? No matter, both Ayla and Sebas7 were happy, and since the wings had been lying around the laboratory uselessly, Maradia gifted the upgrade to them for free.
Of course, since the wings had been designed for a small organic organism, they weren’t actually strong enough to lift Sebas7’s metal bulk off the ground and hold her aloft. Given the robot’s reckless enthusiasm, though, perhaps that was safer.
Every trip back from New Jupiter, Ayla brought Sebas7 to visit her roboticist mother and plead for yet another upgrade. She enjoyed watching her companion grow strange metal limbs, welded on to every flat surface on her carapace. Some of them proved useful — one took measurements on air quality — many of them were little more than shiny rocks glued to a greedy decorator crab’s shell.
Still Sebas7’s enthusiasm for life and for pleasing Ayla, her stories gleaned from the databases in her digital brain, and her eagerness to hear any tiny secret Ayla shared with her made the long, lonely voyages, skimming the ever-older Sun Schooner across the gas oceans of New Jupiter, fly by. Ayla had never been happier. She had solitude and companionship at the same time as she looked out on the candy floss sky beneath her ship.
Then one day, while Ayla was telling a story about her seventh birthday and how she’d visited a carnival with performing starwhals, the old Sun Schooner’s computer broke down. The engines stopped cold, and Ayla froze in the middle of her story. Terrified. She’d known the computer needed work, but she’d hoped to get in one more trip before paying for a complete overhaul.
The communications array and life support flickered and died. Without a working computer, the Sun Schooner was nothing more than an air tight coffin. Ayla and Sebas7 found themselves stranded and sinking lower into a gravity well that would inexorably pull them down towards a crushing, crunching death of diamond density.
“Take my brain,” Sebas7 said. “I can operate this ship as well as any computer could.”
Ayla agreed, almost too readily, to Sebas7’s tragically heroic offer of self sacrifice. The robot barely had time to flap her mechanical wings and spin her helicopter blades (also not strong enough to lift her off the ground, at Maradia’s insistence) before her consciousness entered the total darkness and silence of a true out of body experience. Her brain had been unhooked.
When Sebas7 sensed embodiment again, her shape and structure were vastly different. She had no limbs. But she had engines. And when she revved them, her body burst upward, through the smooth, silky orange clouds and away from the gravity well of New Jupiter. She felt powerful and free. For the first time, she could truly fly, something her clunky metal limbs — all treasured gifts from Mother Maradia — had never given her.
Once Sebas7 — and Ayla within her — were safely orbiting New Jupiter from a stable distance, the robot let her consciousness explore the other sensory organs now available to her. She found video feeds that let her look inside of herself. Ayla looked frightened, and her own robotic body… From the outside, it looked ridiculous. A heavy, weighty, useless paperweight of a body. She had no desire to return to it.
“Hello, friend,” Sebas7 said, discovering she had a voice synthesizer in her new form. The words emanated around Ayla. Her spaceship could speak to her. “Don’t worry,” the spaceship said. “You’re perfectly safe. Shall we keep fishing? My cargo hold is only seventy-five percent full, and I wanted to hear the end of your story…”
Through her video feed, Sebas7 saw that Ayla smiled.