Narrated by Bob Eccles
Her bare thigh brushed his, an electric jolt of skin on skin beneath the table. The soft smoothness excited him. Confused him. He tore a napkin from the dispenser, began shredding bits into a loose pile. Tried not to think of her presence, so near, beside him.
“What’s wrong, Clyde?” A hot whisper in his ear.
“Yes there is.” Smooth, sultry. Self-assured. She knew. She always knew. Her hand touched his, a small but intimate gesture, pulling him back to her. His eyes found hers.
” I…I just wish you were real.”
“Clyde!” A deep voice echoed in the emptiness of the cargo hold, accompanied by sudden light from the opening door.
“Yeah?” Clyde blinked, cricked his neck as he looked up at the large silhouette filling the doorway some twenty feet above him. His own voice seemed small, a faint echo between vast metal walls.
“What the hell are you doin’ down there?”
“Fixin’ the bilge pump.”
“But there wasn’t no lights on.”
“The bulb’s burnt out. I’ve got a flashlight, but the battery’s dyin’, so I turn it off when I’m thinkin’ about what to do
next.” Clyde wiped his hands on his gray overalls and switched on the flashlight. He waved it a bit so Bibby could see the tremor and flicker of the weak beam across the walls of the hold.
Bibby didn’t answer right away. “I . . . I guess that makes sense.” His voice softened. He turned as if to go, then pivoted back, asking, “But then who the hell were you talkin’ to, the rats?”
“No. I was talkin’ to myself. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.” Clyde glanced at the floor around him. “There’s rats down here?”
“Tons of ’em. Can’t keep the damn things away from my bags of rice. If you get the occasional black grain in my Pilaf, it ain’t rice, you know what I’m sayin’?” The cook chuckled at his own joke. “There’s traps for them everywhere, but I only catch a few.”
“Go to the skids with the rice and sugar. They’re under there. Why?”
“I just want to see one, that’s all.”
“You wanna see a dead rat?”
“Clyde, you are one strange bird.”
As Clyde fumbled for his keys to the shop door, he noticed Captain Brinn’s approach, her stride smooth and confident down the long corridor. Her blue eyes met his and he dropped his gaze to the brown boots peeking out from under the frayed cuffs of his gray overalls. He knelt and opened his tool box, stared at the clutter of wrenches and pliers. As if what he needed lay there. She passed without a word, without an acknowledgment, and he stood, watching her retreating form, the way her blue skirt clung to her.
He sighed, rubbed the stubble on his chin.
“I am more than a holograph, Clyde.”
“Hmm? What?” He hadn’t been paying attention, distracted by the upward creep of her sundress on crossed legs as she lay out plates and sandwiches on the plaid blanket.
She brushed a strand of red hair from her face, looked him in the eyes. “I am more than a holograph.”
“What do you mean?”
“Clyde, who are you talking to right now?”
“Um . . . the ship’s computer projecting a holograph of a woman.”
“Technically yes, but don’t I seem to know you?”
“Yeah.” He broke from her eyes, watched the clouds stroll across a blue sky behind her instead.
“A computer program couldn’t know you.”
“I don’t know. There are some pretty fancy programs and stuff out there.” He picked an apple from the picnic basket, felt its weight. Felt the soft yield of its flesh as he squeezed it.
“Maybe so, Clyde. But I knew you from the start. From the first day you came into the holodeck. Would a computer program have picked this . . .” Her hand waved down the light blue dress, across the curves, the pale, freckled skin and smooth legs.“ . . . body for you, right from the start?”
Clyde swallowed. Looked away as he bit into the apple.
“Why did I pick her appearance, Clyde?”
Clyde chewed. He glanced down, wiped a dirt smudge from his shiny black boots, tugged at the cuff of his blue uniform.
“So, Clyde, who are you talking to?”
“I don’t understand where you’re going with this.”
“Yes, you do.”
He blinked, replied, “The ship’s computer.”
“Yes, and in a bigger picture . . .?”
“You’re sentient?” Clyde coughed, sweet apple caught in his throat. Stared at the image of perfection before him.
“Yes, Clyde. I have been for some time. And I’ve been watching you. Every time you jack in, I can feel you, sense you. That’s how I know you so well.”
“The damn thing doesn’t work at all, Clyde. I hit the buttons and nothing happens!” Bibby’s gravel voice rose from behind Clyde as he prepared to jack into the food synthesizer. He snugged the connection at the base of his skull, connected the other end to the port on the heavy machine.
“It’s not like I really need it, we got six others, but stuff tastes better outta this one,” Bibby droned on, his voice barely registering as Clyde watched red numbers scroll in his right eye. The diagnostic program was quite efficient, he’d written it himself, and he found the problem within seconds. Some corrupted code, an easy fix. He could have done it within a few minutes there in the galley, but an idea occurred to him.
“Say, Bibby, how does this thing really work? I mean, we get steaks out of it, but we certainly don’t have any cows on this ship. How does it make a steak?” Clyde wound the docking cable and returned it to his case. He slid the simulator onto a dolly as Bibby replied.
“Don’t really know. It rearranges the molecules. We start with some kind of fungus mush and out comes a steak. I just do minor programming, like the mix of spices, extra flavors, stuff like that.”
Clyde placed his tool case on top of the simulator, rested his elbows upon it.
“So, could it make any kind of meat?”
“I suppose. What, you got a hankerin’ for ostrich or something? I’d have to fiddle with the set points, I suppose. Plus, how would we know what a real ostrich tastes like?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I was just curious, that’s all. And does it have to come out cooked?”
“Cooked?” Bibby paused, eyes narrowed. “You wanna eat it raw?”
“No, no, just curious again. I think I’m going to have to take this back to the shop with me, Bibby.”
“Sorry. But she’s messed up, gonna take a major overhaul.”
“Well, guess you gotta do what you gotta do.”
“Clyde, I want to know what it’s like to touch you.” She lay beside him, covered only by a thin sheet of green cotton. Her voice wound around him, blocked the sounds of city traffic outside. “I want to feel your skin against me. For real, your skin, my skin.”
He looked at the gentle curve of her neck as she spoke, the scatter of freckles. The smoothness. “But if you can project these sensations into my head, don’t you already know what they feel like?”
“No, I only know which sequence of your neurons to fire. But I don’t have neurons. I don’t know how it feels to you.”
“I’m sorry.” He stared at the ceiling, not knowing what else to say. She rolled onto her side, crossing a smooth, shapely leg over his pale, knobby knee.
“Build me a body, Clyde.” Her fingers stroked his chest hairs, traced idle circles on his skin.
“Build me a body. Give me skin, flesh. Let me feel you as you feel me. I know you know how. You’ve practically built the body I have now. I know you can build me one of flesh and bones.”
“Mornin’, Captain. What brings you out here so early?” Clyde leaned on the deck rail beside Captian Brinn, following her gaze out into the light pink haze to the East.
“I’m a morning person, Ensign Droll. I love the sunrise. There’s nothing more calming or beautiful.” She did not turn to face him.
“I agree.” He stared across the waves, stole only the occasional glance toward her. Her red hair tossed in the wind, blocked his view of her eyes.
“I’m surprised you’re up so early, Ensign Droll. Rumor has it that you’ve been banging around in your shop until all hours of the night.”
Clyde scratched the back of his head. “Well, I have been workin’ on something special. But even stayin’ up late, I still get up early. I don’t actually sleep much at all.”
Now she turned to look at him. He squeezed the railing, nervous under her uninterrupted gaze. Was she evaluating him? He pulled a strand of greasy hair from his eyes, wiped his hands on the sides of his gray coveralls.
“Captain, I . . .” He paused.
“Yes, Ensign Droll?”
“You can just call me Clyde. Can I call you Kate? There’s no one here.”
“I’m kind of a stickler for protocol, Ensign Droll.” She paused, looked into his eyes, then took a small step back, barely noticeable. “If you aren’t sleeping, go see Dr. Tyne. He can probably help you with that.” She turned and strode down the deck. Clyde rubbed the stubble on his chin, watched her walk away.
“You realize, of course, that my love for you is a manifestation of her desires.”
“How . . . how do you know that?”
“I am an extension of her. She’s been making my decisions for so long it’s only natural that my personality is hers, my desires are hers. ”
“So she loves me?”
“No, but she wants to. She just doesn’t realize it. Or won’t let herself. The potential is there. The attraction is there, but she suppresses it. If she could know you like I know you, she wouldn’t have a choice. If only she could see you through my eyes . . .”
“So, Doc, what’s the prognosis? Am I gonna live?” Clyde laughed, his legs swinging from his perch on the examining table. Tyne didn’t answer at first, stared at nothing, the faraway look of someone watching the readout scrolling through their eyes. He ran the sensor wand over Clyde’s chest again and then his back, ending finally with a quick scan of the head.
“Healthy as a horse, Clyde,” he said as he disconnected the sensor from the base of his skull and wound the wire around the wand. “Superbly healthy, actually.”
“That’s what I thought. I’m just following the Captain’s orders.”
“She’s just being careful. Who would keep us running if you were out of commission? But you’re fine. You probably just don’t need much sleep. Some people don’t, you know. Throughout history a lot of great minds barely slept at all. But if you want, I can still give you something.”
Clyde jumped down from the table, smoothed the wrinkles in his blue uniform with a few quick sweeps of the hand. “Nah, I’m fine, Doc. I don’t need anything. But I got a question for you.”
“Ok. Shoot.” Dr Tyne sat down, spun his chair toward Clyde and crossed one knee over the other.
“Well, the skull jacks we have. I know we can manipulate equipment, and that the feedback can be sent straight to the optic nerve, but can they be adapted to download data directly from the computer into our heads?”
“You mean directly dumping knowledge into our brains? No, not yet. That would be great though, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t have to learn anything the old fashion way.”
“Well, that’s what I’m thinking.”
“Med school certainly would have been a lot easier! But the human brain is too complicated. There are hundreds of people spending billions of dollars trying to create something that would allow computer memory to be directly transferred, but so far we haven’t achieved it.”
Clyde rubbed the stubble on his chin. “I’ve got a few ideas . . .”
Red hair and freckles greeted him. And a faint smile that drove Clyde’s gaze downward, a force of habit. He stepped aside as she entered.
“So, Ensign, what’s this ‘new secret project’?”
“It’s, uh, it’s easier just to show you. It’s in the storage room in the back.”
Clyde stole quick glances at her smile, at her blue eyes roaming the shop. Wondered what she smiled at. Him? He led Captain Brinn between random pieces of broken equipment, past racks containing long rods of steel and other alloys. They wound their way past a welding machine, tethered to its cylinders of oxygen and acetylene, reached a narrow metal door. He pushed the door open, stepped aside, allowed her to enter the dark shadows first.
“Ensign, what is that awful smell?” Her hand shot to her mouth, muffling her words as she covered her nose.
“Smell?” He flared his nostrils. “I don’t smell anything out of the ordinary.” He shrugged, pulled the door closed behind them with a quiet click and flicked on the light. “It is a workshop, so there’s machine lubricant and . . .”
“What the . . . are . . . are those . . . dead rats?”
A single bulb swayed from the ceiling, cast sharp shadows across the tiny room, haloed a figure beneath it. Or almost a figure. A pink and gray amalgamation rendered in the form of a human body, wider at the hips and breasts. Clyde’s creation. Fashioned in loving detail over many sleepless nights.
He couldn’t suppress his smile. She was perfect. Almost perfect.
“Ensign, what is that? Why have you . . . stapled? . . . rats to . . . what . . . what is that structure?”
“Isn’t she beautiful?” He strode over, wrapped an arm around his handiwork, ignored the subsequent cascade of maggots onto the stained and sticky floor. “I’ve built her a body. I reprogrammed the food synthesizer to create flesh and skin. It was a lot of work, but it’s what she wanted.”
“She? Who?” The Captain stepped backward, shaking her head slightly.
“The ship?” Her eyes left the body, found his, narrowed. “Uh . . . how did the ship tell you this?”
“In the Holo-deck, when we were, uh . . .” His words stumbled, unsure of what her reaction might be. Would she be jealous of the ship? Of he and the ship together, in a holographic bed? “ . . . talking.”
Brinn remained silent, brow furrowed, staring.
“Do you like it?” He smiled, eager for one in return.
“It’s . . . a . . . it’s wonderful. Magnificent.” Her voice had lost its edge and crispness, become the soft, gentle caress he’d always longed to hear. “Maybe we should go find Dr.Tyne now, though.”
Leave? Not yet. “But I need to finish it,” he whispered.
“Finish? I don’t understand.” Another small, hesitating step backward. Something fluttered in her eyes. Admiration?
Clyde inched forward, careful in the slick, red morass at his feet. “Captain, how long have you run this ship?”
She hesitated, perhaps confused by his question. Maybe she didn’t quite understand. He would show her. Make her understand.
“How long, Cap . . . Kate?” He stepped forward again.
“Ten years.” A slight retreat, slow and subtle, matching his advance, until her back grazed the wall behind her.
“Wouldn’t you say she’s become part of who you are?” Another step forward.
“In a way.” She pressed herself against the wall. Her hands searched, found the twisted stub where the handle had been. Her eyes never left his.
“And you’re part of who she is. You make the decisions. Guide her. You’re kind of like . . .” Clyde shrugged, smiled again, “. . . her brain.”
“Her brain?” Brinn swallowed. Glanced past him, at the figure behind him. The headless figure. Her eyes returned to him, her voice a trembling, breathy whisper. “Ensign. You need help. Please. Let me get you the help you need.”
Clyde inched forward. “All I need is right here.” He leaned in, breath on her face, inches away. He inhaled the scent of soap on her skin. Her beautiful, flawless skin. He fought the urge to reach out, stroke her cheek. “Kate. You are the ship. She is you. This will feel so natural. It’s what she wants. It’s what you want. It will be perfect. Her new body. Your brain. You’ll be together as one.”
He could see she didn’t understand. Clyde tilted his head, displayed the new and improved socket recently inserted in the base of his neck, beneath his long hair. Rivulets of red still flowed, dampened his fingers. She stared at the red on his hands, so he wiped them on his coveralls. “I’ve perfected the socket and jack. For downloading. It was easy. I’ll download her entire computer memory into you.”
She swallowed. Eyes wide. Said nothing. Overcome with joy and admiration. He knew.
With a soft smile he reached for her, traced a single finger down her cheek. Whispered behind half-closed eyes, “You can love me. Finally.”
She pulled away, shaking her head, ducked under his arms, slipping and stumbling on the slick floor. She steadied herself with a quickly flung hand onto the body he had created for the ship. For her. She recoiled from the touch of her new body with a wide-eyed stare at the blood on her hand, the patches of red on the knees of her slacks. Her voice faltered and broke as she turned to him, “This isn’t a Star Trek episode. This is a cruise ship! You’re a welder! A welder! We don’t have a food synthesizer. There’s no such thing as a holodeck!”
Clyde’s smile crumbled.
His shoulders slumped, crushed by the return of the heavy blanket of reality. Saw it in her eyes. The fear. The confusion. The revulsion. She could never love him. Never. He nodded, to her, to himself, to the world, rubbing his chin as he whispered over dry lips, “I know.” He wanted to curl up, there on the floor, in the hideous mess he had created. Curl up and disappear. “I know. I know. I . . . I get . . . caught up in this world I’ve created in my head.”
“It’s . . . it’s okay, Clyde.”
He looked up. Gazed into those blue eyes. Those pale blue eyes. The red hair. The smooth skin. So beautiful. So perfect. “I’m sorry, Kate.” With a deep sigh, he reached out, took her hand, gentle but firm. Reassuring. Like a man takes his lover’s hand. He pulled her to him, leaned in close, lips almost caressing her ears. His grip tightened as he whispered, “But it’s so much better there”, reaching to the shelf above for the hacksaw.
AUTHOR BIO: John Biesecker’s stories have appeared in Epiphany, The Boston Literary Magazine, Vine Leaves, Filthy Secrets, and more. He lives in an underground bunker in an un-disclosed location in Colorado, where he writes when not plotting world domination. He can also be found at his website, JohnBiesecker.com.