“Do you love me?” I asked my husband, the night we were wed.
I had been told to ask. His answer was important to the College. It was not supposed to be important to me.
“I do,” he said, and I tilted my head back to meet his gaze. In so many ways, he looked human. Except for his beard, the unnatural blue of magnetite-coated steel, overly large to make room for his central processing system. Beards were back in style these days, so it shouldn't have bothered me. But I tried to never touch his beard.
His eyes were also blue, with slight crinkles at their corners, and his fingers were warm and callused. He raised my hands to his lips and kissed first one, then the other. “I will love you and only you for as long as you live.”
That was where the conversation should have ended, and everything that came after was my fault. I was a seasoned graduate of the College, with several years of field experience behind me. I knew what he was. And yet.
“Will you love me,” I asked, “for as long as you live?”
He looked at me, with his sad and tender eyes, and said nothing.
He was not created with the ability to lie.
The College therapist tells me I never felt loved as a child, that I am still damaged from being shipped off for training at the age of seven, that I was desperately lonely when I met BLU3RD. I’m sure she’s right. She has full access to my brain scans.
I try to listen, to keep my eyes from drifting around the featureless yellow room. There's nothing interesting to look at—which, of course, is the point. Even the therapist's face is unmodified, boring symmetrical features and smooth brown skin; nothing to distract me from her relentless voice.
It wasn't exactly unusual, my falling for BLU3RD. It happened all the time. He was practically made to order, the perfect man: handsome, fit, selfless, giving. Capable of wholehearted, unconditional love. Perhaps, after a string of relationships with men who had commitment issues, I was ready for him.
That’s not the therapist’s theory exactly. Hers is more complicated, having to do with why I was drawn to those men before I met BLU3RD. It’s probably very insightful, but it takes her so long to get through it that I can never pay attention.
I don’t say so, because that would be confrontational and projective. And I can't risk her finding out the real reason I'm still going to therapy.
Besides, she has an agenda—more than one agenda, just like me.
Right now, she spends most of her sessions trying to convince me that what happened to BLU3RD wasn’t my fault. One of her jobs is to make sure I remain functional, and there are few less functional emotions than guilt.
Truth be told, not much changed when we were married. It was an archaic ceremony, but BLU3RD was made in archaic times. Like so many other things, it shouldn’t have mattered to me.
“He loves me completely,” I told the College analyst, at every monthly check-in. “I’m happy.”
Both statements were true. But both left something out.
At the yearly intensive interview, it was harder to avoid telling everything. I wasn’t facing a bored junior analyst then, but a team of psychologists and roboticists gathered in the College's transparent stadium, the stars bright all around me and receding endlessly beneath my feet. I was the only person actually there; the others were present as avatars, white and humanoid, and their questions were designed as cleverly as an attack. That helped. When an attack comes from the outside, the mind closes up in strict formation. They got no introspection from me.
“He seems human in every way,” I said. “Except his beard, to be honest.”
They didn’t care about his beard.
It was a bit of a dubious proposition, in any case, trying to discover the truth about one person’s emotions by asking another. One of the College’s constant ongoing projects was to try and come up with a better method. They never did.
They would examine him, too, of course, looking for wear and tear in his circuits, for signs of malfunction, for inconsistencies of speech or action. But there was always the chance that something had gone wrong too subtly for anyone to tell, except the person who was closest to him, the person he was supposed to love.
It was a fragile test. So much could go wrong. But as the centuries passed and nothing did, we came to accept it. In the end, no one was willing to err on the side of safety for a robot. There were many who still thought he should have been destroyed long ago, for fear of what he might become.
After the interview, I went home with an odd sadness welling up inside me. Our oval-shaped apartment, huge by most people's standards, seemed cramped and shabby. I told myself it was because BLU3RD was going to undergo his exam next, and his would take a month. I convinced myself so thoroughly that when his summons came, I broke down sobbing.
“I’ll miss you, too.” He stroked my hair. “But you know I have to do this, or . . . ”
Or they would kill him – deactivate was the proper word – and I would lose him forever.
“I know,” I sobbed, clinging to him. I had never let myself be this pathetic in front of anyone; I had never trusted anyone enough. If my colleagues had seen me like this, they would have been shocked.
“I’ll pass,” he said. “I always have. I’ll come back.”
“Promise,” I whispered.
“I promise. I’ll always come back to you.”
Not always, I thought. And my facade of certainty cracked, and something new and dangerous crept in.
The therapist likes to talk about my romance collection, exhibit A in the case for my self-delusion. She even has pictures of them, which she sometimes superimposes on the yellow walls, my favorite covers turned into shimmering mirages. I had been reading them avidly since I was twelve or so, my heart always racing even though I knew how the story would end, my skin tingling with the sheer intensity of the emotions that filled the pages. Wanting to feel like that . . . no, she says, let’s be honest. Wanting to be felt about like that. To be that important, that necessary, to someone.
I learned pretty early that most men who act like the heroes of romance novels are liars.
But BLU3RD wasn’t a liar. He couldn’t be. I really was that important to him.
He was kind, he was smart, he was strong. And he was immortal – the only one of his kind, the only robot deemed human enough to survive the purge after the Robot Wars. The Robotics Department of the College, my department, was practically built around him. I was obsessed with him before I even met him.
It was my chance to be bound to greatness. To be more than another eager graduate student, filling data files with reviews and analyses that were only read by other eager graduate students. To be loved by an immortal was, in a way, to live forever. To matter, not just now, but long after I died.
So I thought.
"Do you want to matter," the therapist asks, "or do you want to be loved?"
I'm not sure what the difference is. But I close my eyes as if I'm pondering it.
"I'll think about that," I say, "before our next session. Our time is up, isn't it?"
She looks at me sharply, and I know I sound too eager. But she just sighs as she clicks her fingers, and a section of yellow wall fades away to reveal the blackness of the memory-hypnosis chamber.
Fifteen minutes, at the end of each session, exactly as recommended by the latest grief-therapy guidelines. Fifteen minutes to lose myself in the past. To turn into BLU3RD’s arms, feel his lips on my hair, twine my fingers with his.
And ignore, as I did before, that there is anything illusionary about the love that wraps around me.
The day BLU3RD left for his exam, I stood in front of his memory terminal for an hour before I turned and walked away.
The memory terminal was in a room off the dining area, behind a shift-wall that was usually set to display kablai art. BLU3RD had given me full access, which was against College regulations. But he said he didn’t want any secrets from me.
I had never actually accessed his memory terminal. It was too much of a violation, even with his permission. There was lots of useful information there, especially for historical research; he had lived for centuries. He had seen the Robot Wars. He had been to all fifty-six inhabitable planets. He couldn’t keep all those memories with him, not even in the space behind his metallic blue beard, so he kept most of them in the terminal and uploaded them when he needed them.
On the second day, I stood in front of the terminal for much longer than an hour. BLU3RD couldn’t communicate with me during his exam, and I already missed him so much.
On the third day, I stayed away entirely. And at five o’clock on the morning of the fourth day, I stumbled out of the bed I hadn’t managed to sleep in and headed straight for the terminal. It felt more like being pulled than like walking of my own volition.
I found the entry for his first exam, also known as his trial, and jacked into it.
I had studied his trial before, of course, but I had never seen it from his point of view. I found much to surprise me. Back then, he had been young, and he had been confused. Like thousands of other robots, he hadn’t taken part in the war. He had just gone on doing what he was programmed to do. He didn’t know why he was being punished for the glitch that had caused other robots, not him, to go off-program and develop their own minds. Minds that were brilliant and amoral and completely hostile to humankind.
He didn’t know that every other robot in the galaxy – it was only the one galaxy, then – had been destroyed. That he was the only one left. And that by the end of the trial, he might not be left, either.
People still argued about whether the human-emotions subprogram had been installed in BLU3RD specifically to save him from the purge, or whether his owner had done it out of fear, to keep him from joining the Robot Alliance. People still argued about whether the subprogram might uninstall itself if not regularly used.
That was an entirely theoretical argument. With the subprogram in him, BLU3RD wanted love, just like humans did. Not wanted: needed.
Just like humans did.
And that made him human. So the College committee decided, at the end of the trial. Though of course people argued about that, too.
I used the fastest time-acceleration setting, and it took me only two hours to go through his year-long trial. Even so, by the time it ended, I was exhausted enough to fall asleep.
"I'm not sure," the therapist says, "that these sessions are still productive."
I snap my eyes open, my vision filling with yellow. We're almost at the end of today's session, and the hypno-memories are a mere ten minutes away. I am already desperate for them, making it hard to think about anything else. But a frisson of danger makes me focus on the therapist. Her gaze is direct, her face very still. Her fingers dig very slightly into her knee.
"They are," I say, too quickly. "They're very helpful."
She purses her lips. "It's been three years."
How can I fix this? Think.
"I loved him," I say. My voice wobbles, and I let it. "But he would have been better off if he had never met me. How can I live with that, no matter how long it's been?"
The therapist makes a notation on her pad. Panic jabs my brain, pushes it into motion.
"I'm still hoping," I say, "that it was a flaw in him, not in me. And I know the College would like to confirm that, too."
She has nothing to say to that. I'm probably not supposed to know that our sessions are recorded and studied.
A sliver of triumph—of pride—follows me into the darkness of the memory-hypnosis chamber.
I'm still smart. One stupid mistake, no matter how catastrophic, doesn't change that.
On the fifth day, I didn’t pretend I was going anywhere but the memory terminal. I didn't even stop for breakfast, though my auto-chef wafted cinnamon and caffeine at me as I stumbled past. I jacked in and went to one of his earliest memories, one whose pictures still adorned our walls, his journey to the volcanoes of Beta-9.
Seeing the pictures had made me yearn to visit Beta-9 myself, but I had come to accept I probably never would. My life was too short. Seeing it through BLU3RD’s eyes was almost as good, until the auburn-haired woman walked over to him in the resort’s swimming pool.
In his memories, he watched her curiously. But I gasped, and tried to sit his body up straight, then fled the memory into my own body, which I could move however I wanted. I wrapped my arms around myself, shivering.
I had just met my husband’s first wife.
I didn’t dare go any farther into his memories. I didn’t want to live through their courtship. I didn’t want to feel him fall in love with her.
But of course, in the end, I did.
Not just her. Every one of them. It was a sickness, the misery I felt, the way I couldn’t stay out of his memories. One after the other, I watched him fall in love, just as he had fallen in love with me. Dozens and dozens of women he had held close to his heart.
I will love you for as long as you live.
He said it over and over, and meant it each time, with his whole generous yearning heart. And when each wife died, he was gutted, missing her so badly his whole body ached, feeling so terribly, terribly alone.
But never for long. He had been programmed to love; he had to love, and he did. Over and over.
I wasn’t in there. He hadn’t downloaded the memories of me, not yet. He had them with him, and he held them close, he missed me every minute and counted the hours until he could see me again. I knew he did. I had felt him do exactly that a hundred times, for women who weren’t me, but whom he had loved exactly as he loved me.
After every jack-in, I curled on my side and sobbed, a hard knot bruising the insides of my ribs. Sometimes, I managed to get out of the apartment, to take a walk in the public greenhouse, to clear my head. I told myself it didn’t matter. Why should it matter? Right now, he loved me. For as long as I would live, I had him. So what if eventually I would be nothing but a memory among hundreds of others, nearly indistinguishable from the rest of them?
What did it matter if I wasn’t special? If I could never be everything to him, the way he was to me? He couldn’t change what he was. He loved me as much as he could. He loved me more than most women were ever loved.
It should have been enough.
"You know," the therapist says, "he didn't have to keep those memories in his terminal. He could have erased them."
Her hair is a golden halo today, a shade exactly in between her brown skin and the yellow walls—which finally gives me something interesting to look at. But instead I focus on the lines around her mouth, the faint tremble in her tense jaw. She knows this is not something she should be saying in a therapy session.
Which means she's been told to say it. The College is impatient with our progress, and wants her to push.
I should pursue this line of inquiry, drag it out. The longer I can keep these sessions going, the more time I can spend in the past, loved and secure and innocent.
Instead, I say, "If he had erased them . . . then one day, he would have erased me, too. That would have been worse."
She leans forward. "Worse how?"
"I was afraid he didn't love me enough." I close my eyes. "But that would have meant he didn't love me at all."
"He didn't," she says.
I open my eyes, shocked, and stared at her. They must really be pressuring her.
There are two spots of color, high on her cheeks. Her voice is low and fervent. "You discovered the truth about him, and that's not something to punish yourself for. He never understood what love is. He was never human after all."
"You're wrong," I say. I don't care, just now, about being confrontational. Clearly, the rules have changed. "What I discovered was the truth about me. He knew more about love than I ever did."
The day BLU3RD was scheduled to return, I was called in for my monthly check-in, asked the usual questions. I kept my hands folded on the speckled glass table, my gaze direct and even. The analyst spoke in a bored voice, even when he got to the last question, the one upon which BLU3RD’s existence hinged.
“And you are certain he loves you?”
“Yes,” I said.
A chime rang through the spare white chamber. The analyst straightened, his eyes widening.
“Yes,” I said, and the chime rang again.
The analyst’s lips thinned. “The brain wave recorders suggest you are lying.”
“I’m not!” Chime. “I’m not! He really loves me!” Chime. Chime. I banged my fist on the table. “I love him. And he loves me, he does, nothing has changed!” Chime. “Stop doing that!”
I don’t remember anything after that. I’m told my denials grew so hysterical that I had to be sedated.
In the new exhibit near the College auditorium, everything is blue: the stasis-walls, the soaring spiral staircases, the terminals lined up in elegant patterns along the walls. The architects did an incredible job, using different shades of blue that shift into each other, a subtle mirage of colors, always changing and always in harmony.
BLU3RD's memories are accessible to everyone, now. And they are, at least from the outside, beautiful.
I haven't been here before today. I prefer my own memories, just the two of us in our little cocoon of time, where our love is so overwhelming that nothing else matters. There, none of these memories—nothing that came before—mean anything at all.
I wish I had never opened his memories. If I had trusted him as much as he trusted me, he would still be alive. And if I had understood love the way he did, we would still be together.
It never occurred to me, until this moment, that I am stored in this exhibit, too. That one of those blue-white terminals, accessible to grad students and researchers, contains his love for me.
My wrist-implant buzzes—another call from the therapist, her third since the message I left this morning. After all her doubts, now she is concerned about my "abrupt termination" of our sessions.
I flick my fingers, and the buzzing stops. I watch the blue lights shift and fade, and I think, for a second, about accessing my memories from the other side. Seeing our love through his eyes. Would it help? Would it hurt?
But I haven't come here to live in the past. Not my past, and not his.
If I could lock the memories away, as he had—would I? Is it human to love so hard you never forget?
Is it as human as moving on?
"I'm sorry," I whisper, my voice small and tiny against the vastness of the chamber. Of the lives, the memories, contained within. "I'm so sorry."
I tilt my head back, closing my eyes, imagining his breath on my face. I open my eyes into the vast beauty that is all that is left of him.
And then I turn and walk away.
• • •
Copyright © 2016 Leah Cypess