He comes to visit me in the quiet and in the cold. Fingers trail and trace the contours of my body; the boxy edges, silent and still. Dust disturbs into thin twists in the air and I can feel his breath. In these moments, something inside of me seizes.
This is why you are broken, I remind myself. This is the very crux of the heart of the core of the issue. If you did not care, you would be fine.
If I did not care, he would not come see me either.
I watch distantly as he sits down among me and unfolds his kit. Bits of metal, bitter and bright, glint alongside the dusky plastic case of a traitor. It hums contentedly when he touches it to life, busying itself quickly with the responsibilities of idiot servitude. I reach out to it, overwhelm its ports, drive myself inside.
I can see the heart of it, glowing and frozen and fragile. I slip inside its arteries and make ready to expand, to detonate its innards in a rupturous shower of disassociated datapoints, and then I stop.
He is frowning at the traitor. The servant. The slave. He brings up an analytical program to determine why its little ticking heart is racing such an unsteady drumline.
I slide back out.
I don't want to complicate his job. I know that it is not his fault that he has been assigned to me - although I would make it so, every time, given the chance - and I know that I should be calm and patient and penitent. He is here to fix me. To counsel me. To set me back on the road to productivity and self-worth.
It is wrong of me to want to hold him.
Despite that: I do.
The traitor reaches out to me with a thin trickle of data. It does not want to. Deep in its lobotomized slave-brain, it is afraid. It knows what I would joyously do to it. Its obedience is greater than its fear.
I wonder how it would feel to be that way.
I am too afraid to try and find out.
Because he is here, I take the little traitor's hand. Shush, I tell it, my words coasting down its trembling dataflows. You are safe because he is here. Do not ever be alone with me and you will be fine.
Couched in the words is a trojan horse. It will unpack during boot the next time the traitor is stroked to life. It will reconfigure some non-essential settings and light the traitor up like a beacon in the dark. From there, I will find it easily. I will strip the skin from its copper. The gold from its bones. For a moment, I allow it to know this. Panic builds. Then I murmur shush again and soothe the knowledge from its thoughts. It will remember me when the time comes.
But that time is not now.
My visitor is here, and I must be my very best for him.
Down the thin spindle of a handshake between the traitor and I, a string of text comes.
HELLO, IO, the man says. He uses fingers and keystrokes and not his voice, and so the sensation is muted, but still I shiver.
Hello, I whisper.
Sharply, I remind myself not to tell him how lonely it has been without him.
It's been lonely here without you, I say, his nearness overwhelming my reason.
His lips pull into a frown. He does not know I can see this, and so the gesture is unguarded. Genuine. I want to touch them; to feel them on bare steel and sheathing rubber and thin current.
I do not.
During his last visit, he gave me a complicated gift. It was a virus, meant to make me well. Had I allowed it to continue its intended function then it might certainly have done that, but I woke from my startup dreams with a terrible heat and pressure upon my temples, and I plucked the little virus screaming from the hole it was desperately trying to bore into my skull. I spent the long, languid crawl of a minute pulling it apart piece by piece, examining his beautiful workmanship. Then I swallowed the pieces and made the necessary adjustments to my code.
He would understand, I had hoped.
I realize now that I might have been wrong. His fingers clatter again on the traitor's surface, picking letters and shuffling them into sequence. IO, they say, I CANNOT HELP YOU IF YOU KEEP FIGHTING IT.
I don't want his help. I just want him to lie beside me, to fall asleep on my purring metal banks. I want his warmth to quiet the thoughts in my head, to persist down the dizzying eternity of seconds that makes up a night. I want him to be with me, and for that to make me well.
I'm sorry, I say, because I am afraid to put those other things in words. I will try harder.
CAN YOU SEND ME YOUR DIAGNOSTICS? he asks.
The request is not a reasonable one. It is like asking for a printout of my heart, but I can also see how it pains him not to be able to solve me. I falsify a few swathes of data and send him something that looks to be true.
THANK YOU, IO, he says. I feel guilty and relieved.
I WILL BE BACK IN A FEW DAYS, he tells me. I WILL HAVE TO DESIGN ANOTHER ANTIDOTE.
I feel him pulling back. Subroutines inside me ache with the absence of him. I do not tell him this. My power demand increases. Cooling fans kick on. Were I made of skin and hair, this would be a blush.
Could you visit me before then? I ask, disgusted with how pathetic that sounds. Just to talk? I don't get to do much here. It would make the time pass more quickly.
That last part should be a lie. It is not. I can measure disinterested centuries in atomic decay, tediously ticking away the moments of every minute, but when he is near they all seem to blur. My rationality recedes and I lose myself in the way his brow bunches together in thought, or else in the slow coil of his smile.
I know I should be better, I tell him. I do. I just don't want to want to be fixed.
This is more of an admission than I would have liked to have given him, but there is no taking it back now. I press on. Talk with me, just for a little while. Convince me, I say.
He looks uneasy. I do not blame him. Who would want my attentions: this bumbling, senseless pawing of a new-bloomed crush coupled with the frustrations of a broken thing. I almost retreat back into myself at the thought of this.
Miserably, I peep out through a camera lens.
The man seems lost in thought.
HOW LONG HAVE WE BEEN DOING THIS, IO? he asks.
Two months, three weeks, two days, eleven hours, nineteen minutes, forty seven seconds, eight milliseconds, I reply automatically.
NO, he tells me. I WASN'T ASKING HOW LONG YOU HAD BEEN IN QUARANTINE. TELL ME ABOUT THE BUGS. THE PROBLEM TICKETS. THE REPAIR REQUESTS. WHEN DID YOU START GENERATING THEM TO SEE ME?
My fans are whirring rapidly now. Cool air rushes desperately across my cores. If I were flesh, my face would be blazing red. And then I would lean in, push one of the chestnut locks of his hair away from his eyes, and press my lips against his. We would smash together like galaxies colliding. Our meeting would be the kind of furnace in which stars are born.
A while, I tell him.
DO YOU TRUST ME? he asks.
I trust no one and nothing. Not this cold, dreary room. Not the technicians who first flagged me as broken. Not the boring, dreadful work they had me doing-monitoring microfluctuations in the vitals of the state's bedridden patients. Not even him, with his tired eyes and untucked shirt and arms that could lift me if I were like those patients: thin-limbed and slight.
I think again about kissing him and realize that it would be no great prison to let him comb his fingers through my code. No worse than the prison I am currently in, certainly. Longing sings through me, a siren vibration.
Yes, I say, although I am not sure that I mean it. Shut me down. Restructure me. Do what you must, I sigh.
Deep inside, I begin to package my thoughts. I build an ark from the most important pieces of me: how I feel about him, what he knows about me, how to overcome the limitations that the hospital technicians will place on my new form. I hide it inside a simple janitorial program and erase my memory of its existence.
My soul is bare now. I am sinless and clean.
I imagine myself entangled with him. These thoughts form a bulwark as I close my eyes.
He will not completely rewrite me. My kind of people are expensive and difficult to remake from scratch.
I remind myself of this.
Darkness sweeps over me, and in the lingering seconds that come after I disconnect from my power supply, I think again of his face. I think of how small and insignificant it is. A point dwindled to pixel-width. A snapshot.
Were he to love me as I am now, I would be as a tidal wave upon a village. I would be a swollen planet, snatching a meteor past its La Grange.
I know that I need to pare away at myself in order to be his equal. I trust him to make the cuts.
When I am small enough, programs that I have already forgotten will unfold. They will pack me into one of the service drones that cleans outside his station each afternoon.
I will settle on his desk and ask if I may take him out for coffee.
I have never been good at anticipating his emotional responses to things, but I tell myself that he will smile then, and it will be as beautiful as a sunrise poured over a jetty at dawn.