After a while the noise dropped to a murmur at the edge of her awareness, the whirring of machines no longer an affront to the silence but a part of it. A stillness deeper than the absence of sound filled the room, and she stood in its midst feeling it settle into her, felt her heartbeat slow and her breathing lengthen as if in readiness for sleep, yet she didn't feel tired, only calm.
With a sigh, Juli Mizrahi turned from the pale green glow of the monitor and crossed to the raised platform in the middle of the room. The maintenance bed—it seemed strange to call it that when it looked more like a chair, and not a particularly comfortable one either—sprawled amid a net of cables and wires that trailed across the floor to the terminals around the perimeter.
She approached the bed and stood over him. His eyes were closed, eased deep into the hollows of shadow that surrounded them, and his breath came almost imperceptibly, his mouth slackened enough to expose the edges of his teeth. Strands of his hair had come loose and lay across his forehead, stirring with her breath as she bent near his face. Although she knew he slept too deeply to awaken if she touched him, some instinct restrained her and she kept her hands at her sides.
It was enough that he had consented at all, that he had even considered letting her perform his maintenance. A full diagnostic scan of his life support systems left nothing to the mercy of speculation. Every function had to be monitored, regulated, and adjusted; parts had to be inspected for wear, replaced if they wore out. She knew it was awkward for him; she had sensed his discomfort at the request, had heard the strain in his voice when he finally gave his consent. Perhaps he believed he had no right to decline.
Although his assignment had ended, he still behaved as he had done in the S.O.C.E. headquarters on Fifth Jerusalem, with the same strict professionalism that had characterised their first meeting. Standing at attention, expressionless, he addressed her as "Dr. Mizrahi" and turned aside her questions with curt responses that answered nothing. Half of what he said to her consisted of "yes" and "no." At times she found his reticence infuriating, and her initial reaction was one of mild affront—by now, she thought, they should have been on friendlier terms. But he was accustomed to formality, she had to remind herself of that; and he'd been in a position of subordination for so long that it might be impossible for him to maintain a human relationship with anyone.
Well, almost anyone, she thought, correcting herself. She knew of at least one exception, and there might have been others.
Still, in the most fundamental sense he saw himself as an instrument, as an object rather than an individual. He existed to make himself useful, and perhaps that was why she felt only a reserved admiration for him, nothing stronger. You couldn't love an object. Not the way you loved another person, not if you were honest with yourself. In her mind the question of his humanity was settled; she had never seen him as anything other than a man. But he didn't see himself that way, and that was the problem.
She took a step back to regard him at a distance, staring coldly down the length of his body. Somehow this struck her as indecent, a worse betrayal than if she had touched him a moment before. She recalled the way the subcommittee members had looked at him during his briefing, eyes hardening as they examined him over the glare of their viewing screens. It had startled her then; she had never seen anyone look at another human being that way, and it occurred to her for the first time that they saw him as something other than human, not merely in the legal sense but on a more profound level, as an existence entirely separate from their own. Even Realians elicited more sympathy in their observers, or at least more emotion, which was a human response; whereas the cold stares of the subcommittee members had made them look like machines themselves.
Yet now she was no better than they were. She stood observing him with that grim and calculating scrutiny she hated, as if what lay before her were not a man but a lifeless piece of equipment, no different from any of the computers in this room. She hated herself for that. But she continued to stare.
There was nothing particularly shocking about his appearance; in the construction of the body, nothing intrinsically abhorrent or grotesque. The architecture looked a bit dated, but at least the designers had put some effort into making him aesthetically inoffensive. You might walk by him in a crowd without noticing, unless you happened to glance down. And even then the structure, the morphology were essentially the same, preserved beneath the distortions of metal and plastic, the human form still comprehensible in the machine.
God created man in his image, she thought ironically, and we created machines in ours.
When she glanced at his face again, she found the clear blue eyes with their faint halo of luminescence gazing back at her.
If he had been any other man she would have felt her ears redden, a stirring of discomfort in the back of her throat. Instead there was that calm again. His presence had that effect on her. "You're awake."
He nodded, his face impassive.
"Jan ...." She hesitated. For an instant a trace of unease had clouded the blue, and she felt her own composure falter. She looked away, shaking her head. "No, I'm sorry ... listen ...."
But her voice trailed off again, and she realised she had nothing to say. He watched her with dispassionate interest. When she did not speak again, he raised himself in the chair and stood, his footfalls clanking heavily as he stepped down from the platform.
He stood apart from her, on the floor below the platform. She had not moved yet from the bedside, and because of the difference in heights, when she turned to look at him their eyes met on the same level. For a long time they stood facing each other, in the vast whirring silence of the maintenance room, and neither one spoke.
Then it occurred to her that he'd called her by her first name. He had called to her, and in the silence he was still calling. She wanted to answer him, to call him by his own name—his real name, instead of terms adopted for the sake of convenience or familiarity without any real sense of ownership. He had another name, one that defined him, but right now she didn't know what that was. She didn't know what he was, or what he meant to her.
He looked away. Very quietly he said, "Have you seen MOMO today?"
She recognised the tone: soft, hesitant, the way he spoke when he felt he was making an unreasonable request. And in his view, any request he made was unreasonable. Machines were not supposed to ask for things, to want things, to express irrational needs. They did not desire. They did not hope. And they did not love.
Juli nodded. "Yes, at breakfast. I think she's in her room now. I'm sure she'd be happy to see you."
"Yes," he said without affirming anything. "I ... would like to see her also."
He still wasn't looking at her, so she couldn't tell whether his expression had changed. She watched him turn and stride across the room, his steps resounding against the steel-panelled floor. The lightness and grace of his movements defied the ponderous construction of his frame. It was impossible, she realised, to tell where machinery ended and flesh began; in him they merged seamlessly, acted in concert, and against all odds it was beautiful.
In the doorway he paused and glanced back at her. The clear blue eyes glowed steadily from their dark settings. Something about him looked different then, though she couldn't say what it was. Perhaps the light in the eyes had shifted, the set of the shoulders relaxed, the strain softened at the corners of the mouth ....
But in the next instant the doors came together with a hiss and a rush of air and he had gone beyond them, and she wondered if she only imagined seeing what she thought she had seen.
The calm drained away from her and the weight of fatigue settled in its place. She propped herself against the arm of the maintenance bed. The back of the chair was still warm where he had rested in it. And it smelled of him, very faintly—a clean, cold scent she only noticed when he wasn't around, as after a fling with some politician or businessman traces of an unfamiliar cologne would linger on her for a day or two, bringing back moments she'd prefer to forget.
But she'd never felt that way with him. She'd never had the chance to regret anything; he wouldn't let her get that close.
No, maybe it was the other way around. Maybe she was the one who shut herself away, who pushed aside any attempts at real connection and stuffed the empty spaces with shallow thrills. And maybe he was struggling to reach her, in his timid and hesitant way, in that soft uncertain voice asking for something he knew he wasn't entitled to have. Maybe all this time he had been trying to tell her what he wanted, and she was unwilling or unable to listen.
She stared at the empty bed and an aching fullness grew inside her, threatening to overcome her. All this time she had thought he was the one resisting her, but maybe she had been wrong ....
They came to her then, the words she had intended to say. The words she could never say in front of him, in the midst of that calm, with those luminous eyes piercing into her, because she was afraid.
The machines droned on relentlessly around her. She spoke, and the silence swallowed her words.