52. Breaking the Limits
“…that’s all?” asks Lai.
Alec blinks. “You were expecting more?”
“Well, sure! I was expecting a lot more. Like, why did they never fix your eye?”
“Repairs were attempted, but never entirely successful.” Unconsciously, he cups his hand over scarred side of his face. “Quite some time elapsed before anyone took an interest in restoring me, during which the parts used to complete my ocular circuits were removed from circulation. My left eye now possesses some semblance of vision, anyway, and I suppose that is better than nothing at all.”
“How did you end up with Felix after forty whole years?”
He stares at her incredulously. “You are more preoccupied withthatthan you are with the fact that I am responsible for the death of my human superior?!”
She crosses her arms. “Look, can I at least hear the whole story before I have to reach a verdict?”
“If you must.” He is still all over, wondering if she is purposely delaying her renouncement of him or if she as truly as neutral as she seems. “Although everything else seems rather incidental. Although I was meant to be promptly decommissioned, one of my designers secured me under his ownership. He spent many years developing an empathetic software so that bionic imps could be given emotions, but before he completed his task, genetically improved humans were invented and androids fell into disfavor with the world at large. Yet he still persevered with me, convinced that I could become the first true artificial intelligence. Four years after the Orbital 13 incident, he succeeded in his endeavor – but he did not receive any praise for his achievement, as no one was exactly awaiting my return on baited breath.”
“That was Pythagoras Mansen, right?” she interjects. “You told me before that he’s the one who gave you emotions.”
“Yes. I also received my name from him. He was fond of comedic wordplay, you see, and from my serial number he derived the letters A-L-E-C. And so for the past thirty-six years I have found a new identity as Alec Mansen, passed first to Pythagoras’s son Metus, and then to Metus’s son Felix.” He forces himself to shrug nonchalantly. “It has been tolerable enough.”
Lai places a hand on his arm. For once, he doesn’t shrink away from the contact, but that might be because her touch is so feather-light that he can hardly feel it. “You hate talking about it, don’t you?” she asks softly.
He gives a tense nod.
“So why bother telling me, then?”
“It is as I told you several days ago. You and I are alike in that we are different. Anyone else might scoff at my lack of desire for social integration, but you understand that it is not that simple.”
“No, it’s not,” she agrees. “Besides, I’m a nimp. That can’t be any weirder than being an android.”
“Perhaps not. But you are also not a murderer.”
She gives him a long, strange look. “Do you actually believe that?”
“Do you really believe that you’re a murderer?”
“Murderer, mutineer, rioter, apply whichever phrase you desire. But under no uncertain terms, Captain Shelby’s death was caused by me. That is not a debatable topic.”
“The way I see it, it’s not really ‘murder’ unless you were intentionally trying to kill him, and you weren’t. I guess ‘manslaughter’ might be a better way to describe it. Yes, it was partially your fault, I don’t have any delusions about that, but he has to take a part of the blame, too.”
“But…” His operational eyebrow creases. “This does not bother you?”
Lai shakes her head. “It’s probably good that you waited this long to tell me, because now I know you. Before, I used to think that you were just a creepy jerk. But ever since the ILG’s siege on Settlement 211, we’ve gotten to know each other a lot better. Have you noticed that?”
“I certainly have.”
“Well, anyway, now I know that you’re not really creepy, or a jerk, and you’re definitely not a murderer.”
His lips give the barest twitch. “You may know me better than I know myself.”
She shrugs. “What can I say? I think you’re just lonely, Alec. You don’t want to admit it, but you are. You’ve tried to find someone to confide in, but you haven’t yet. There are people like Felix and Ema, people who you can consider your friends and who you like and respect, but you don’t really trust them…not intimately, anyway.”
He doesn’t respond, but only because he doesn’t feel that there’s anything he can add to that. She’s right, of course. Just because he denies something to himself doesn’t mean that it is nonexistent. He has always felt closed-up and isolated, and he’s pretended that he doesn’t mind being that way. But he has human emotions now, and just like any human, there is a small, quiet part of him that longs to find a connection.
He is only realizing now that he might already have found one.
“I have the utmost trust for Dr. Mansen and Dr. Ema,” he states. “But you are correct in assuming that my relationships with them are strictly professional. I have known both of them for many years, and yet they know little of my thought processes, my personal opinions, or my emotions toward certain subjects.”
“So, as Ema would say, you don’t like to talk about your feelings,” she remarks dryly. “Well, neither do I. Do you trust me?”
The question comes out of nowhere, and he blinks, startled. “Yes,” he answers slowly. “Do you trust me?”
She nods immediately. “Sure. I’ve told you some things that I’ve never told anyone before. Actually…I think I might like you.”
The implication is lost on his literal mind. “You ‘might’ like me? What is obstructing your certainty?”
Lai rolls her eyes. “I mean, I think I mightlikeyou.”
Alec can only stare. Surely his grasp of common dialects is just failing him once again, and he isn’t saying what he thinks she’s saying. Surely not.
“…it is best that you do not become too attached to me,” he says, averting his eye. “As I am only able to experience the barest semblance of attachment.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“You should. I have explained to you before that my emotional capacity is…limited. I have never been able to feel extremes. Happiness, but not jubilance…sadness, but not anguish…distaste, but not hatred…” If he could have swallowed, he would have. “And admiration…but not love.”
Even before he finishes speaking, Lai is shaking her head.
“The only thing limiting you isyou,” she declares. “If you really wanted to feel those things, you could, but you’re afraid to. You don’t want to be weakened by extreme emotions, so you keep believing that it’s beyond the limitations of your empathy software. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from being in the Uniters, it’s that limits were made to be broken.”
Alec’s eyes flicker with coolness for a moment. “As if you possess any knowledge of my programming.”
She flashes him her usual smug, vague smile. “The way I see it, all we can do is try.”
“Yes, try doing something like this.” And she leans forward and plants her lips against his.
He stiffens immediately. His good eye widens until it is round and yet still unseeing, and its broken twin sputters furiously in its socket. The kiss is not a deep one, or a passionate one. It is light and faintly tinged with anxiety, and as far as he can tell, both of Lai’s eyes are open too. Her actions have startled her as much as they have him. Even though she’s always been blunt, he’s never known her to be so…direct…before now.
They finally pull back and stare at each other, both of them aghast. They are not sentimental people, and it’s hard for them to wrap their minds around what this will mean in the long run.
Lai, with her customary lack of tact, is the one who interrupts the long silence. “Did that break the limits for you?”
“Not entirely.” Alec shakes his head, mystified. “But it is a promising start.”