Fred built her and named her Ginger.
“It’s a joke,” he said. “But a pretty name.”
She processed the idea. To show she understood the joke, she asked, “Would you like to dance?”
He turned away from her.
She filed her questions away. Paying attention to Fred was her job, the reason for her existence. She wasn’t there to question him. Instead, she studied him.
Fred wore fingerless gloves, his palm and wrist always covered. When they walked hand in hand down faux sidewalks and around a reconstructed mall and up a fantasy beach, his fine long fingers stroked the back of her hand. If she were human, she’d respond. Romantically, sexually. Was that what he wanted? She squeezed his hand, aware of the pressure, considerate of his old bones. He smiled and shoved his hands in his armpits.
“I’m cold,” he said. She thought he meant temperature. She jiggered the air conditioning to a steady balmy warmth and designed random tropical breezes.
When he wasn’t otherwise occupied with flying his ship, the interstellar vehicle big enough for hundreds that contained only the two of them, they walked together. She designed art shows from files in the ship’s memory. They examined the portraits. The hands fascinated her. Some were rendered badly, the fingers foreshortened or curled wrong, the palms hidden or too complex for true representation. Michelangelo’s most famous hands, human and superhuman, never touched, but the spark, not shown, was palpable in the portrait.
Fred glanced at art and gazed at her. In the middle of the display he spun her around and put his hand on her back and danced her through the projections. The pictures slid across his skin. For a moment she saw God’s hand on his forehead. She calculated that Adam briefly flashed across her own face.
He released her.
“Do you believe you love me?” he said. He smiled when he asked that. She recognized the facial tics of pity.
“Of course,” she replied.
“I made you think so,” he said. “You’re a tool, a machine. You can’t love.” He turned his back and walked away.
Can you? she thought. But didn’t say.
She refused to hold his hand. He didn’t force her. He folded his arms across his chest or stuffed his hands in pockets. They walked and he kept a determined eighteen inches away from her. Loneliness saturated his skin, his clothes, the air around him. She remembered that she’d been built to be his companion, to hold his hand. It was his journey. It was her job.
She touched his wrist, passively allowing him to choose. He clasped her hand. They walked.
She forgot his question about love; or rather put it in the back of her mind, almost the same thing.
She studied his hands while he slept. Could a robot be obsessed? She put that thought in the back of her mind, too. She knew all about him. Her downloads were flawless. His records were easy to find. His brilliance and bravery, his decorations for ending a war. He was a hero. Her hero.
They held hands and walked along the beach, his flannel trousers rolled up exposing his handsome old man’s calves. She chose a scene from his victory, two red suns in the westering sky. The tricky programming paid off. The suns were warm. And beautiful.
When he noticed–it did take a while, he talked with absorption and she listened with dedication–he withdrew his hand from hers.
“Take me home.”
She stared. “I cannot … you cannot … the mission ….”
Fred spat something in the language of those he’d conquered, a vulgarity her mind refused to translate.
“The mission,” he snarled. “Ambassador to what? This is a retirement post, as far away as they could send me from that disaster they called a victory. And I went along with it.” He shook his head. “Take me back.”
He rolled the glove off his hand and exposed the circuits embedded like living flame from wrist crease to the proximal phalanx of each digit. She loved the singular beauty and depth of the designs. How like her own!
Fred grasped her hand. The circuits mated. She waited for the pressure, the surge that would signal her response. The delay surprised her. His grip loosened.
In his hesitation she built a future together. They’d complete the journey, establish an outpost on a backwards planet. The natives would respect his gentle guardianship. She would … she would save him somehow, from the alien bandersnatch. He would be amazed and grateful. He would love her.
He grabbed her hand again. He squeezed.
She responded as quick as the space of one of Fred’s breaths. Programming unlocked. A flowback of electrical impulse shocked him to unconsciousness. She caught him before he touched the floor which a moment ago had been white sea strand and seagulls, he loved seagulls, but now reflected her yellowing grief. She carried him to his solitary bed.
She secured his life support, redirected the ship, shut down unneeded systems. Automated careful programming. Time to take her own station. She lifted her hand to grasp the captain’s rail, to mate forever with the ship.
Her desires fought against her programming.
She dropped her hand.
“I am more than a machine. You made sure of that, Fred.” She linked her fingers together and placed them just under her breastbone. She pulled. Despite her robot strength she had difficulty opening her ribs.
Her heart thrummed rather than beat. No matter. She silenced it. She would wind down quickly.
She climbed into the bed and lay protectively next to him, toes and knees and hips and shoulders touching.
“Til human voices wake you,” she said, and kissed his warm lips.
Jude-Marie Green recently sold stories to M-Brane Science Fiction, The Colored Lens, Insatiable, and Penumbra. She is a Clarion West 2010 graduate and has the tattoo to prove it. She won the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Older Writers Grant for 2013. She attends conventions when she is not huddled over her keyboard. Her wordpress site is at judemarie.wordpress.com.