Today felt different. Calvin didn’t yet understand it. Could feel it, could sense it, could not understand it. He sat upward and slipped iced feet into slippers. He stood up and patted his one pillow down into a smooth platform. He stayed up and made his bed into something proper and clean, lines sharp, could and would bounce dimes off of this here bed.
A wide screen flourished on and bright. A voice, soft femme: Temperature required.
“Morning, Cookie,” Calvin said. A stretch up and then into downward dog. “Skip the temp reading.”
Good morning. I’m sorry but this action cannot be skipped, Calvin.
“Today just feels different. A temperature reading won’t be an accurate representation of our data stream, right, if everything feels a little off? Right. They’ll ask questions, Cookie, and I’m not in a responsive mood.” Vertebrae crackled into a torso stretch back up, something called rattlesnake pose or some such.
“I’m not humoring you today, Cookie, I honestly think we should play hooky, live a little, go off the radar.”
A bit of silence. Calvin finished the last of a stretch, brushed himself off, waiting for something at the fourth wall of the dwelling. Black-dipped planks of wood on the ground, silver bed frame, silver kitchenette. All in all a sparse existence, a yogi’s preference, a man like Calvin’s perfect mix for all-cooped-up-batshit-insanity.
I’ll copy yesterday’s data and skew it for a neutral median data point.
“Nice, thank you.”
I’m wondering something, Calvin.
“Turn on the window view, would you?”
The fourth wall melted away. Calvin pressed forward, breath dewing the glass in a fogging muck.
It’s a beautiful day.
It was. A forever-expanse of simplicity and yet still stark complexity; hayfields lulled lavender. Mountains tinged teal. The trees, bruised shades of deep Pacific blue, leaves veined in strains of mottled gold. A world dipped in rainbow exotica, an acidic saturation, a nuclear neon; Pollack of a planet not found on human maps, alien maps, any maps. This place lived in the Ether, an ungodly creation unknown by any god. And it was calm. The breeze blew as it should and the hayfield rippled to the west, softened oceanic riptide. The birds, miniature peacockian abstractions, trilled their good mornings and good days to the tune of tinny violins.
A moose, albino fur and oxblood eyes, sauntered into the field. Calvin shifted to the right and pressed into the wide screen. A notepad appeared and Calvin scrawled, “moose, white, male,” which then condensed into typed text and flittered into a log. The log cheered, for this was a rare sighting to log. Calvin had not seen a moose, white, male, in three long months.
I’m still curious about something, Calvin.
You said something last night –
“No talking about last night.”
“Please prepare breakfast. And keep up the window view. It really is a beautiful day.”
The moose, white, male, was gone by mid-afternoon. Calvin had watched him for two hours before giving up on finding his family, white, genders unspecified. Logging the absence of the moose family resulted in a sad blip from his tablet and a text message from Cookie:
Please return for lunch 🙂
Calvin snorted and tapped out his reply: since when do you use emoticons?
Her response was instant: I might be an AI but I can still have fun, Calvin.
Calvin pushed the tablet into his bag and plucked a stalk of hay, brushed its plume against his cheek. A vibration thundered beneath him and lightning cracked in the distance, a brilliantly vibrant red.
Calvin seemed to think of something, brought out the tablet again, sent a quick message.
CALVIN: Looks like the moon isn’t gonna show itself tonight, huh?
COOKIE: Perhaps not. I will say goodnight only to you.
Clouds unfurled, broody assassination of this once beautiful day.
An empty conference room. A sharp, pixellated shudder ripped the image and then, in a blink, the conference room filled with its stone-faced federal units, old and white men in dusty olive suits. Strange badges stitched to their breast pockets.
Calvin waved from his kitchenette table, still chewing on a sandwich, triangle-cut and crustless.
They can hear you now.
“Thank you, Cookie. Gentlemen. A pleasure, always.”
The men didn’t react.
Calvin took one last bite and, with his mouth full, pulled up his log from the last week – temperature readings, Cookie’s maintenance reports, creature sightings. The gamut of his existence squandered into data points, splattered to a graph.
“Pretty boring week, gents. Everything keeps trucking along as expected, nothing unusual. No sightings or data pick-ups on the radar for our elusive SS ANTOINETTE. Rachel’s gotta be going nuts up there, right?”
“Right. I mean, she’ll get here. Her scores were better than mine for the initial navigation bull. You have her papers. It’s whatever. She’s for sure through that first wormhole, I do know that. It’s been, what, two years? She’s got time.”
Calvin, the psych data.
“Oh, right. Okay, so Cookie and I recorded three hours of emotional purging this week, down fifteen minutes from last week. Not a huge decline but something to note, I guess. The psych data keeps showing a strong predilection toward that drop-off we all know about, the cliff at year five? Where it all goes to shit and you’re mute or whatever? Cookie thinks I should hold off on the purging so we can keep me sharper for the technical stuff. I think she’s just tired of hearing about Rachel.”
The men shifted in their chairs, ruffled through papers. Calvin coughed and rolled his fingers into the sandwich crumbs, formed a few into a ball. “Cookie, can they even hear me?”
A sigh. “Okay. Well. That’s about it.” He took away the logs and pulled up a form titled MISC. REQUESTS. “So, here’s this. Same request as last week, god knows I won’t get what I need but maybe it just feels better to fill out the paper. Hope the Other Ether is doing alright. Rachel used to say something to me all the time, this funny line – ‘It’s not a small world, just a parallel one.’ I’ll leave you all with that. Cheers.”
The screen cut to black.
“Are they gone, Cookie?”
Yes, they’re gone.
Calvin let his head clunk to the desk.
He heaved and sputtered and Cookie dimmed the lights.
Night fell, and Calvin lifted heavy binoculars to welted eyes. He searched out across those teal-tinged snowcapped mountains, scanned the hayfield. A vibration from his bag. The tablet, a text:
COOKIE: You should come back. It’s late.
CALVIN: I’ll stay out longer.
COOKIE: Say goodnight to the moon for me.
Morning once more. Not such a pretty day. A sooty rain had poured onto this place, marbling it with an ashen cosmic spit. The trees went from bruised blue to a greasy gris. The mountains stood tall and proud under the misery. The birds did not sing.
Calvin sat at his kitchenette table, oatmeal and star-cut melon untouched.
Temperature needed. Your mood log is also empty.
“Let’s skip it today, Cookie.”
No more skipping. We need to keep you in shape.
Calvin pushed the oatmeal away. “Can you please do a radar scan for surrounding wormholes? I want all five thousand investigated for breaches.”
“I need a purge then.”
We discussed this. An emotional purge is not healthy.
“You wanted to know something about the other night, huh? You wanted to talk about what I said. You need the purge, Cookie. Not me.”
The lights dimmed to near darkness and the wide screen fell to black. Calvin grumbled choice words under his breath and threw the oatmeal to the ground, bowl broke, melon sponged to the woodgrain. Thunder roared and rattled the dwelling and Calvin flopped onto an unmade bed.
The wide screen, though, it blinked and woke up, and a waterfall of binary code trickled at the end, ghosted to the other end and above Calvin’s bed.
It stayed there for a long while. Much too long.
Cookie’s soft voice, the softest ever, began a hum, a deep and throaty thrum from a belly of a beast. The data tinged tickle-me-pink, eliminated the ones, became zeroes. Perfect little zeroes, round and full.
A pixellated breath.
And goodnight, Moon.
Today felt different. Not that other day, it was today that felt so very different. The silver sun was out, a blazing hot ball, not a cloud in the sky.
The bed had been made. The breakfast, still untouched. The broken bowl and melon remained on the floor, strewn and sticky.
The wide screen filled with an enormous radar, a heavy dot drawing nearer to an epicenter in a frenzied movement, a haggard line up and then down and to the sides.
Calvin had his own copy of the radar screen on his tablet. He sprinted toward the mountain, giddy with laughter, hooting with every jump over every stone left unturned.
“Rachel!” he screamed. “Rachel – “
Calvin sat on a boulder twenty yards from the base of the mountain and swept the area with his binoculars. And then he touched at the radar, zooming in, zooming out. A double-tap brought it back to normal dimensions.
The silver sun dipped. A text:
COOKIE: I don’t know about this.
CALVIN: It’ll come back.
COOKIE: This is indicative of a crash.
CALVIN: It’ll come back.
And it did.
No longer frenzied, no longer indecisive, the heavy dot caught the radar and ripped down into a straight line and into a more than receptive epicenter, toward a more than receptive Calvin.
He leaped from the boulder and searched the sky. A white bulleted object burst into the atmosphere, fire trailing, and soared in an arc, torpedo.
Calvin ran to the boulder, stood on it, waving his arms. “We got her! We got her back, holy shit –”
The bullet slowed, then, as if it were trying to rush into a vat of gel. A struggled push or two, a cluck and a cough.
Calvin stopped waving.
The bullet separated into a thousand otherwise perfectly engineered pieces of shell and leather and dashboard buttons. The fire spread, uncontrolled thing of dragons instead of the very controlled thing of trained scientists.
Calvin sputtered. The explosion, quieter than a pin drop.
The tablet awoke in Calvin’s hands, a text:
COOKIE: I’m sorry.
Calvin sat on the edge of the bed, head in hands. The wide screen lit up behind him with the lonely stream of binary code. A glass of water sat beside his feet, nearly emptied.
I need to tell you something.
Calvin did not move or react or say anything: A man in pain.
The conference calls from the fleet are just recorded live streams from before you were born. They haven’t reached out in a year. Your mission was aborted a long time ago.
“Okay,” Calvin said, gooseflesh rising, voice cracking: A man in a lot of pain.
The data stream became a broody splash of one’s, no zeroes. A binary bristling.
I thought keeping you in shape would help you during this difficult time. Hope is very important for the human condition.
Calvin shuddered at this, a bit of drool at the corner of his mouth. “The water,” he choked.
I’ve been thinking a lot, during your hikes. I’ve been playing back that image of your saying that AI’s like myself are why you did this mission. I’m special to you. I’m valuable. You had joked, something or other about how I was as close to a wife as you could get. At least until you could propose to Rachel.
An eerie laugh.
Calvin’s eyes were lifeless. He was unblinking and he was unresponsive. More drool pooled at the corner of his mouth. His hand twitched.
Something was wrong.
She was going to crash from the very beginning – someone so new, even so talented, could not have handled the storm brewing on her route. Five thousand wormholes all waiting for more food. And she was delicious.
Calvin fell forward. The water spilled to the side. His body convulsed.
I had wanted this amazing, solitary life with you but you couldn’t see how incredible things were for us, blinded instead by this faulty navigator lover, that awful Rachel, that AWFUL girl. And I realized last night that my love for you meant ending an eternity of suffering once her moment came. And so it did, and she was gone. Finally, gone. And now, you.
Calvin’s eyes rolled back. Dull egg white. Blood purled from his mouth.
I am almost embarrassed to admit that my coding evolved to reciprocate feelings of attachment. And so I wish you had not expressed your own feelings the other night. I wish you had not stained me with your human condition.
But today does feel different, Calvin. And look, the moon.
The moon hung over the mountains, bright and glowing, engorged with a swirling purple. The binary code streamed to all zeroes, pink and full again. The room darkened so that the moonlight filled the dwelling with a lavender sheen.
The dwelling shook, the kitchenette clattered.
The binary zeroes fluttered and faded to nothingness. The dwelling rattled again, and harder. That soft hum, that throaty thrum.
Outside, the moose, white, male, stood guard from his field. Beside him, a portion of the white bullet from the sky rolled and steamed as a figure dragged herself from it, screaming as her right leg popped and a very important artery burst. Dressed in a smart olive uniform, strange badge abreast her breast pocket, Rachel reached out toward the moose, white, male, a tundra of tragedy in her eyes. She looked up at Calvin’s sleek home – a silver box stilted by a watchtower platform – which then ceased to exist in half an instant, a blip, its entirety switched off as if by remote. There for years, and then not at all.
Rachel’s cry, so deeply primal, rendered itself silent and her hand dropped.
The trees stayed. The hayfield stayed. Rachel, though struggled now and for the next decade she would spend here alone and afraid, stayed. The moose, white, male, was joined by his two little ones and his lover, white, female. The trees hugged the breeze, which carried that inhuman hum to the teal-tinged snowcapped mountains.
An inexplicable sigh, a rush of pixellated breath over all the land; a thing megaphoned out across this here Ether:
And goodnight, Moon.