Allison’s eyes, large and unblinking, reflected the flashing lights on her wall, gray-blue steel images wavering from the wind blowing in through the window. The sky was purple and cloudy, but rain wouldn’t come. Rain never came.
She waved her hand in front of the image before her, hoping to disrupt the figures walking on the landing pad, or cause an alarm and panic to the dozens of tiny people on. She would have been satisfied with a wave back in her direction. But nothing happened. When she touched the wall it felt like dipping her hand in her grandmother’s Jello pie so long ago: warm, not cool, and somewhere between solid and liquid. It was like touching a cartoon. Not a drawing but a live cartoon, with stuffed animals that could walk and talk and laugh with you.
Allison loved animals, and thinking of them made her sad despite the wondrous image before her. Ever since the image of the Starport appeared on her wall two days ago, reminding her of the upcoming journey, she began to miss all the animals in her home, from the parakeet to the kittens, from the bobcat upstairs to the fish in the back of the toilet bowl. Allison loved every animal on the planet, but she would never see them again. Not after today. And knowing this made her sad.
She turned from the image and stared at the boa constrictor on the floor, Bobby, as he wound tightly around the wood rocking horse in the center of the room. Allison would be leaving Bobby tonight, just after lights out, and the question of how he would survive was driving her mad. She tried to imagine a place on the shuttle where Bobby could stow away, but there was no chance he could survive the journey. Even her father told her that much.
Allison’s father, Arboran, was always honest, always forthcoming with his plans for her. It was because of his direct honesty that she could never be completely mad at him, and as a way of repaying him she challenged every decision, keeping him alert and on his toes, always ready to jump in and take care of her and anything else he’d missed while preparing for their adventures. Allison became a necessary asset for his job as pilot and navigator to the Prio, the first shuttle to venture to and from all nine planets in the solar system, and the first to leave the solar system.
Allison was proud of her father, and before turning off the wall screen she kissed her hand and waved at the Prio, appearing tiny and distant in a hangar next to the Starport, hoping that her father would feel her kiss. She would board the shuttle in less than ten hours, just long enough to say goodbye to Bobby and shut his system down.
Systems. Everything was run as a system now, such that Allison had a difficult time remembering when to breathe and what creatures should consume actual food versus the pre-packaged, vitamin-like mechanical upgrades. Allison loved all of her animals greatly, yet she could only imagine what it would be like for an actual, live bobcat to live forever, warm and alive, growing naturally without the help of robotic extensions. And no matter how many times she chased Bobby around the room, even to tease him, the Boa would never look her in the eyes, never risk constricting itself around her and accidentally suffocate her.
It was this lack of connecting with her animals that drove Allison to one day remove the inhibitor chip from her Labrador, Lance. She was only ten at the time, which seems so long ago. She was bored, as usual, having just landed on Neptune for a weeklong refueling session with her father and the miniscule crew of the Prio.
Bored and too young to take part in any conversation or logistics planning, Allison walked with Lance through the circular gravitation center of the Prio, trying to play fetch with the dog, to no success. Fetch was a game where a person threw something – anything – an object that the dog would then retrieve with its mouth, only to return it to the person, who would then throw it again. This activity would supposedly bond the person and animal closer with trust and fulfillment. But with a non-biological animal, Allison had a tough time feeling that trust and fulfillment.
She bent low, petting the artificial fur on Lance’s head. His tail wagged, but his eyes, they remained motionless, lifeless, staring straight and waiting for his command to walk, run, sit, or sleep, for that is what these animals could do.
Allison searched, looked for any other company, an adult, perhaps, or someone watching her. There was no one.
Carefully, but with movements akin to much practice, she reached her fingers into Lance’s ear. He gave a snort, a tiny whimper, and then his tail fell motionless. Allison pulled her fingers out a bit, and stared at the inhibitor chip, attached to a million tiny wires in Lance’s brain. She examined it a moment, and then plucked it away, the wires falling loose against his cheek.
Immediately, Lance barked, growled, and snarled his head back and forth, biting at the air. If he were a bio-animal, he would be in immense pain. His teeth—his fangs— snapped left and right, searching for the source of his pain.
Allison shouted, “Sit! Sit! Sleep!” to no results. Lance began to calm down when his eyes found Allison. His brow furrowed, and he bared his teeth, growling. She approached, slow, holding out the inhibitor chip. She felt horrible, that she had caused so much pain, but how could she know? Lance was not a live animal, and the inhibitor chip was to keep him from becoming attached—to keep her at a distance that was safe for an eternally traveling human. Cut off your connections, and you cut off your world.
Allison shushed the dog, holding her hand out, palm down, in an effort to calm the beast. She had seen this act performed dozens of times in movies and in pictures, the act of taming an animal, to force it beneath you in order to take control and become the master, not the friend.
But Lance was no ordinary beast. Allison felt the connection grow, immediately, when Lance cocked his head to the side, stuck out his tongue and began panting. He eyed her, his whimpers growing louder with each breath.
Allison’s hand remained inches from his snout, the inhibitor chip clutched between her palm and thumb while her other fingers reached to touch his nose, now somehow glistening with sweat.
The moment his teeth clamped down on her wrist, Allison felt nothing. She even laughed, thinking it was a small game, a dog nipping at his master.
But then her blood was dripping, down his chin, to the shiny, dust-free floor. She felt tendons rip. Her bones ached. And the hot steaming breath down Lance’s throat coated what was left of her mangled hand. She had screamed, then, louder than she thought a person could scream.
The next thing she could remember was her father’s voice, a loud BANG as Lance fell to the floor, feet away, Allison’s hand still gripped in his jaw. Allison looked at the stub of her wrist, at the broken veins sticking out, and she felt nothing. Her father had calmly scolded her, spoke about the mess on the floor, the task of cleaning the oil and re-installing her hand, and led her back to her room.
Now, sitting on her bed, Allison made a fist, and unclenched her fingers. This hand was better than her last, made from reinforced titanium. And it was larger. She realized that her experience with Lance helped her grow. Arboran told her that she would become a woman soon, a grown-up, just like real girls. She wondered when the day would come for her own inhibitor chip to be installed to stop these feelings of uncertainty and disconnect.
She wondered these things as she tapped Bobby on the head. She wondered how long it would be until she would touch a real, live animal. She thought about the last time she had seen a human, and how lonely she felt. She wondered what it would feel like to feel the pain of losing someone, of losing a friend – a real friend. After 300 years flying through the Milky Way, she wondered if they would ever find a planet with intelligent life again, life not created or developed, but simply alive.
Feeling alive, Allison stuck her reinforced fingers into Bobby’s skin, watching for the pulsing glow of his inhibitor chip. She yanked, the wires exposed and loose, and watched with wonder, with building excitement, as Bobby looked her in the eyes. She felt his damp, cold skin as he quickly wound around her, constricting tight.
Allison felt warm.
She felt alive.