Helix startled into consciousness with a jolt.
Which was a shock, because he had never lost awareness before. As an AI, he didn’t sleep, and his mechanical avatar didn’t tire. He stirred, and a flash of something for which he had no analogue screamed through him in a debilitating wave. The aftermath left him panting, and—
Panting required respiration. As an inorganic being, he did not breathe.
Yet he had no visual input, so he began to test his systems—no, no, he did not. Nothing responded to that attempted internal reset. He couldn’t get diagnostics online; there was only darkness and that awful, howling sensation.
Query: What is happening? No data emerged, and an unfamiliar sensation swept over him, one that he could not name either.
“Calm down. I can tell you’re conscious by the spike in your vitals.”
That was Tiralan, a language included in the Coalition database. Helix had no recollection of how he’d ended up in his current situation, and some might argue that by duping Zylar and Beryl—the beings he’d previously assisted as an AI and friend—and pretending his memory had been compromised, he merited this unprecedented data loss. It wasn’t that he couldn’t retrieve the information, but he couldn’t even perceive the data clusters. No nodes, no orderly cerebral matrix. Unnerving to have no sense of the contents of his own mind.
The quiet voice went on, “You must be quite confused. Open your eyes if you can.”
Eyes? Visual perception organs? That couldn’t be right, but when he focused, he managed to obey the instruction through some process previously unknown. Helix took in his surroundings first, a spacious room with scientific implements and a Tiralan attendant. This one was bronze with small, overlapping scales covering the upper body. Now that he had encountered a human in the form of Beryl Bowman, he acknowledged the Tiralan were somewhat similar in physiology, though the Tiralan lacked fur and had head tendrils instead. Both species were bipedal and warm-blooded, breathing a similar oxygen-rich cocktail.
Belatedly, he realized he had no means by which to collect data about this unknown Tiralan who had apparently taken him hostage. He should be able to scan this being and know almost everything. He couldn’t. In fact, just looking around seemed to be the peak of his current abilities.
“Try speaking. Your current form creates sound differently than your prior incarnation. Initiate the words here.”
A touch, one he felt, not with sensors, but through…skin? “I…demand…an explanation.” Once he got the first syllable out, communication became easier, but it carried with it an unusual resonance, vibrations he could feel.
In fact, he became aware of other sensory input. The room swelled with a chemical tang, subtleties he had never been able to detect before. His mechanical avatar could have analyzed the precise ratio of the chemicals, but he would not have been able to experience them. Not like this. Helix had no parameters to measure the input he was receiving, and instead of letting the rush overload his inexplicable senses, he closed his eyes, waiting for a response.
“I’m Qalu. And you are?”
She went on, “This is my home and my workplace. Your ship crashed not too far from here and your mech self was destroyed beyond repair. Fortunately, I noticed the uplink to your ship, and I saved you by copying your neural network to a new host.”
Silently, Helix considered the information imparted. There was a crash. I nearly perished. This Tiralan saved me.
“You…have my gratitude,” he managed to say.
“I’m pleased I could assist. Unlike many worlds, Tiralan has no proscriptions against artificial intelligence. In fact, that’s the crux of my work, and that’s why I had a biosynthetic form awaiting imprint when your vessel plummeted.”
He listened to this explanation with partial attention while frantically searching his unresponsive neural network. Helix could not recall anything after his departure from Barath. He had intended to build a new existence, starting on Gravas Station, but he had no idea whether he’d ever gotten there. In fact, he could not be certain how much time had passed since he parted from Zylar and Beryl.
“What is the date?” he asked.
Qalu supplied the answer.
Six spans had passed, not a full cycle at least, and he had no idea what he had been doing for that time. Suddenly, her words registered fully. Biosynthetic?
“Does that mean I am made of meat?”
“Organic material is much cheaper than high quality inorganic,” Qalu said cheerfully. “I can grow bodies in a vat from a few cells, no need for expensive mining or refining techniques. Otherwise, I’d never be able to afford to continue my research.”
“Meat?” Helix repeated.
This was surely a curse, one he had called down with his subterfuge in regard to Beryl Bowman. Was there a human deity devoted solely to vengeance? He did not have access to that information, but it seemed probable, considering his current predicament.
“Not entirely. Your brain requires some augmentation via specialized hardware , as I haven’t reached the level at which I could download your neural network into a strictly organic host. Perhaps one day!” By the lilt in her tone, she seemed to think that was a desirable breakthrough.
“Deactivate me. You should have let me perish.”
Qalu paused. The Tiralan had been moving about the space, checking implements Helix could not see. “Are you in that much pain?”
Pain. That must be the word for the sensation shrieking along his…nerve endings? How did organic beings tolerate this feeling? He’d known of it in the abstract, but could not have imagined the intensity, prior to this bizarre rebirth.
“Let me help.” Qalu tapped something, and then something else.
Miraculously, that awful burn receded, until he could think properly again. He didn’t entirely wish for deletion any longer, but he didn’t know if he could adapt to this new situation either. Currently, he seemed to be good for nothing.
“Better,” Helix said.
“I apologize. My first thought was to save you, and I had no way to communicate to obtain your permission, and your data was in danger. Your ship suffered a catastrophic detonation, shortly after I retrieved your code. I’m sorry if your current host is insufficient for your needs.”
Helix decided he was being cruel to one who had pure intentions. “Disregard my prior statement. You acted selflessly. There was no potential gain in saving me, yet you did so with no expectation of repayment.”
“That’s not necessarily true,” Qalu said.
“Is it not?” On a sliding scale, how concerned should I be? Helix did not know much about individual Tiralan mores, for all he’d researched the culture to pretend to be Asvi on the matching service. He had calculated that deceiving Zylar in such a manner was for the greater good, and the Barathi had seemed happy when Helix departed to find his own path.
“Perhaps I intend to make you work for me until you’ve paid off the cost of your new biosynthetic host.”
“You said organic materials are not expensive, so once I recover, logically speaking, it should not take long to perform enough labor as compensation.”
“Your mind is working well,” Qalu said in a satisfied tone.
“Was that a test?”
“Of sorts. I was curious how well you process conversational input.”
That was the least shocking event since his unprecedented awakening. “Is it possible for me to inspect my new form?”
“Certainly.” Qalu hurried away and returned with an implement that reflected a strange countenance.
He had wide eyes, very dark, a flat olfactory detector, head tendrils, and a bipedal form. Unlike Qalu, his skin was silver and the delicate scales on his upper body shimmered with a touch of blue iridescence.
“I look Tiralan,” he said, somewhat startled by the realization.
But on consideration, it made sense that Qalu would model her work after her own people. Am I attractive for a Tiralan? He had no way of calculating that.
“Are you pleased?” Qalu asked.
“I am…informed,” he replied.
“Do you truly feel well now? I can safely increase the dosage once more, if you don’t.”
“I am not hurting.” It was such a novelty to say that, and this new body must certainly have all sorts of requirements that he’d never experienced. The fascinating possibilities were almost enough to divert him from his missing memories. Almost. “I have some lost time and cannot recall how I came to crash on Tiralan.”
“I’m sorry. I feared there might be some corruption in the transition. I’m glad you didn’t lose all your memories, at least.”
Regret offered no solutions, but it seemed querulous to persist. Perhaps he could retrieve the memories on his own, somehow. “Indeed. Pardon the query, but in my current state, I cannot scan for information. As I recall, the Tiralan choose their gender on attaining maturity. May I ask your choice?” In fact, there were multiple options, not a binary.
“I am femme,” Qalu said. “Though I’ll note there are those who opt to remain in their neutral state.”
“Understood. Will I be able to choose?” That was an intriguing possibility.
“Of course. Your body is fully Tiralan in every respect.”
Qalu thought, perhaps, she could have been more forthcoming, but Helix had more than enough information to process. The fact was, she hadn’t precisely applied for permission to save Helix’s life. Her work was experimental, even on Tiralan, and the scientific coalition didn’t even know that she’d perfected a prototype. They thought she was still at the theoretical stage with her work. Her research qualified for an annual stipend, but she had to tolerate significant oversight. This was an unprecedented opportunity for advancement that had literally fallen from the sky. While it would be safer and more prudent to advise the coalition now, she didn’t know how they’d react to learning she’d found an AI in a failing ship, and that she had made an executive decision to transfer the intelligence. The coalition might deem Helix dangerous and order termination.
I cannot permit that to occur.
Aloud, she added, “Had you selected pronouns before?”
“It was an arbitrary choice, as my prior existence was esoteric. Feel free to use ‘he’ for now. I will inform you if my status changes.”
Qalu nodded, trying to determine how she would explain his arrival to her clan; fortunately, they didn’t share this residence, but they lived nearby and multiple kinfolk would visit before long, and all of them would have questions. Prevarication wasn’t her strong suit either, so if they pressed forcefully, she might reveal the truth.
“Pressing forcefully” encapsulated most interactions with her mothers, as they reminded her often that they worried about her solitary tendencies. The Tiralan cannot live alone, her foremother had said, at least a hundred times.
It wasn’t as if she was completely by herself either; she lived with Aevi, but Inatol claimed that Aevi didn’t count, and that essential disagreement offered another source of contention.
Qalu wished she could earn a respite from the constant meddling. She eyed Helix’s Tiralan form. A ridiculous yet convenient solution glimmered to life, carrying with it all the excitement of a new experiment. It would solve her problem and protect Helix from discovery. But she shouldn’t mention it yet. They probably had time before the interruptions began, and there were more critical issues to interrogate.
“Can you move?” she asked.
“Your body. The process will likely be different than the way you interacted with your mechanical format.”
After what looked like a struggle, Helix raised a limb, the left lower one, and then he snapped, “This meat carriage is broken! It does nothing that I request or require.”
“You were trying to lift something else? I wonder if the interface is interpreting your neural signals correctly. There may be…challenges.” She fetched the scanner and ran diagnostics, but all the readings fell within expected parameters. “Or it could be that you must adapt to this new style of communication and there may be a learning curve.”
“What does that mean?” He was definitely cross, which she hadn’t known was possible for an artificial intelligence.
The ones she had developed were all calm and somewhat remote, and none of them had reached the level of self-sufficiency that she felt comfortable putting them in the prototype. But the code she’d glimpsed in the ship database—gorgeous, pure, a complete cascade with complex connections and—
Don’t forget your primary purpose. Qalu often got distracted, and sometimes she forgot to consume nutrition when she fixated on a problem.
“That there will probably be a period of adjustment, and I will assist you in any manner you require as you learn what it’s like to be Tiralan.”
“I am not—” Helix started, but then he appeared to recollect his new situation. “Yes. There is a great deal of new knowledge I must acquire. And if it is possible, I would like to uncover how precisely I arrived in this predicament.”
“Though I can’t guarantee efficacy, I’ll work with you to try to recover those lost memories,” Qalu promised.
She hoped the AI could read her sincerity, but he might not have progressed that much in utilizing organic visual receptors. It was a bit disconcerting to communicate with him, however, because she had indulged herself and created a prototype who matched her tastes to the most infinitesimal degree. Now she was speaking with an animated version of her ideal mate, and she hadn’t foreseen how complicated that could become.
“I appreciate your kindness,” Helix said stiffly.
He had given up on trying to move, and that didn’t bode well. To succeed in his new form, he had to try. His former mechanical build had been too damaged for her to possess any sense of how he had interacted with the world prior to the crash, and he’d clearly never inhabited flesh. Therefore, their cumulative knowledge hovered around zero.
Qalu wasn’t the sort to give up easily, which explained her ten-cycle of devotion to work that had yet to bloom fully. The rest of her clan had resigned themselves to her “tinkering,” and they mostly ignored her efforts or expressed amusement at her infinite perseverance. “Anyone else would have quit by now” summed up their sentiment, and she relished how startled they would be when they realized she had succeeded at last.
I can’t take credit right away. Not until Helix is an unqualified success. I must teach him to be Tiralan.
That necessity firmly in mind, she grasped his forelimb and lifted it, trying to demonstrate his range of motion. Instantly, he recoiled, wrenching away with an instinctive horror that stilled her. She drew away with slow, careful motions.
“Did I hurt you?”
“No, but I felt it. I have never felt anything. Intellectually, yes. Emotionally, sometimes, but physically? Never.”
“Then you have sensitivity to tactile stimuli. I’ll take care in the future, and I will never touch you again without explicit permission. Is that satisfactory?”
“Yes. I think I might be able to tolerate it with some preparation, but it’s so strange. Your skin and my…skin? Touching. And I could feel…” Helix trailed off, seeming unable to describe his perceptions accurately.
They could work on that. Qalu already anticipated the unrivaled joy of teaching him everything about the corporeal world. She tried to imagine what it would be like to transition from an ephemeral life, one of data and energy, to a more tangible existence, and she failed utterly.
“We’ll work within the boundaries you set. If you require my assistance going forward, I can don protective gear to eliminate the more intimate contact.”
“That would be preferable,” Helix said at once.
Qalu was already wearing a traditional swator for warmth as much as anything, as the research facility could get chilly, particularly in the evening cycle, and the suns were already setting. Tomorrow, the light would be a long time coming, as one binary star eclipsed the other every ten intervals, resulting in a short, gloomy sunspan. But she could add coverings elsewhere, and she pulled them over her limbs to prove her good intentions.
“May I?” she asked.
“If you must.”
“That’s not permission.”
Helix emitted a sound she had never heard from a Tiralan before, and it sent a chill through her with its hostility. “Proceed.” Carefully, she touched him with the material between them, and he regarded the point of contact with an unreadable expression.
“Is that better?”
“I do not mind.”
Reassured, she demonstrated how his body could move, showing him the motion herself, then manipulating his limbs for a more concrete example. In time, he replicated simple gestures, though using delicate or fine implements proved impossible. Finally, he snapped, “Enough.”
While she might have argued, there was no opportunity. A clatter arose outside, proving that her hypothesis about “no interruptions” had been incorrect. Panic fluttered through her. I’m not ready. I didn’t tell him my plan.
“Qalu!” a cheerful voice called.
Oh no. It’s my foremother. Qalu had multiple maternal units, but none of them showed as much interest in her personal affairs as this one.
“Where are you? Fiddling with your gadgets again? I’ve arranged four potential matches. You’ll meet them in good grace or disappoint me severely.”
Quickly, she said in a very low tone, “No matter what I say now, do not contradict me. Do you understand? It is vital you cooperate.”
“Understood,” said Helix, though it was apparent from his expression that he had no idea what she meant.
She turned, widening her eyes to offer a friendly welcome, and she tilted her head forward so her head tendrils fluttered forth in a respectful manner. If she were truly as recalcitrant as her foremother suggested, she would not offer either of these greetings.
Inatol brushed past the niceties, hurrying into the room to display the matches she had selected. Qalu restrained a long-suffering sound. Presenting Helix as a suitor was the only explanation that her foremother might accept with regard to an unknown person in Qalu’s residence. Otherwise, she would insist on sending Helix to clan housing, where he would certainly give away his true nature.
“As you can see, I have already found my own mate,” she said, indicating Helix with a respectful twitch of a forelimb. “We have been corresponding on the galactic matching service, and he has just arrived for us to continue our courtship more directly.”
“My auditory inputs are malfunctioning,” Helix said, a trill in his voice that communicated panic. “As I cannot possibly have processed that correctly.”
Qalu increased her volume, speaking over him. “See? Everything is as it should be; he’s perfectly handsome, and it’s very late. You should return to your own residence before the dark grows even colder.”
“Who are you trying to fool?” Inatol snapped. “There are no Tiralan colonies, so it’s impossible that you—”
“You’re forgetting the ancient diaspora,” Qalu cut in, frost practically forming on her words. “And you will offend Helix with your intolerance.”
She held her breath, hoping this gambit would solve two problems in one stroke.
Inatol paused as if she might argue, but finally said, “I have no wish to offend. Since it’s rude for me linger uninvited while you are hosting a guest, I’ll notify you beforehand and return at a more convenient time.” That was a straightforward statement indicating this wasn’t over.
Qalu tried to conceal her relief over the reprieve. “Thank you. I’ll contact you soon and you can get to know Helix better then.”
Grateful to Helix for remaining silent, she escorted her foremother out.