by Jayelle Cumberledge
“Do you ever feel lonely?” Tam asked, tracing the line on his chest where peachy, freckled flesh became a dark, olive brown. His patchwork skin had once made her cringe in shame for what she had done, but she had grown to love the mismatched tones and the way they blended together and apart. She liked it almost as much as she liked the knobs and knuckles of his fingers, features she had always struggled to get just right. But it was his eyes that were her favorite: dark grey spotted with a blue of innocence, a violet of intelligence. They were certainly her very best work.
“Lonely?” he asked, the word elongating on his tongue as he tried it out. Tam swore she could feel his body vibrating beneath her head as his inner search engines kicked on, racing for an answer to the question he had not quite asked aloud.
“It’s like sadness,” she provided. “Sadness when I’m not around.”
He was silent, and she had no way of knowing if he was trying to figure out the answer or merely cataloguing her definition for future use. It could have been both, but just as easily neither. Tam had put so much time into that processor of his; had lovingly cradled his forehead while she pushed it into place, had hummed to him as she connected SATA cords to his MoBoSpine. He could just as easily be diving through his memory cards, recalling every movie she had had him watch in his first weeks of life. Being able to both see and hear how a human should behave, he had grown exponentially in that time, learning to speak, to move. His kisses were still awkward when they came: sometimes too rough, sometimes too open-mouthed. But he could learn, she knew.
“Sometimes,” he replied finally, his fingertips tickling the small of her back the way he had seen Cly Zhang tickle the small of Marya Sain’s back in Iron Heart. He had watched the film three times since she first booted him. “When you’re in your lab,” he went on, bending his head to look down at her. He looked so young, she thought, and wondered if he knew she wasn’t pretty. “Or sometimes when you’re here with me, but not entirely.”
Tam smiled. He was showing sophisticated levels of emotion, beyond what words and definitions of standard American English could provide for him. The Growth software was working. He would change over time. His spectrum of emotions was widening.
“Why are you smiling?” he asked. His hand lifted off her back to instead swipe those perfectly shaped knuckles across her cheek. “Why are you crying?”
She desperately missed the hand on her back. The cold of the ship’s metal walls penetrated her spine, prickled her flesh with goose bumps. She pushed herself up and crawled over him, out of their tiny bunk. His fingers reached for her, trailing lightly down her forearm in a silent plea for her to stay. Raj Fereye had done it to Michael Daul in Changes, she remembered. She pulled her robe down from the top bunk, folding it over her naked body. “I’m going to the lab,” she said, bare feet padding softly to the other end of the empty bunkroom. He stuck his head out from off the bed, and watched her disappear through the sliding doors.