Ensign Ronda-12 tapped the door to the ready room as she entered. Her long, slender legs devoured the space to Captain Blade’s desk in five strides. The captain arched his eyebrows. “Sir,” she said, “you have to exempt Lt. Hickok from the Jalatis Large landing team.” More arching. She wondered if a human’s eyebrows could ever touch their hairline. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Ease back, Ensign. I’ll do no such thing. Lieutenant Hickok’s skill set aligns perfectly with the objectives of the Jalatis Large team. I’ve not only personally picked him to be on the team, but he’ll lead it.” Captain Blade stood, walked ‘round to the ensign, and eased his hands onto her shoulders. “He’ll be fine.”
Ronda-12 stepped back. “I’ve calculated a statistically significant chance of casualties from the electrical storms on the asteroid. Can we at least delay until —”
Captain Blade stiffened. “That’s not how things work, ensign. HQ gave us a deadline.” The captain softened again. “I know you and Lt. Hickok have been … involved, and I’ve no problem with android-human relationships. But you mustn’t allow your personal life to interfere with the responsibilities of this ship. Is your program malfunctioning? Should we send you in for a tuneup?”
Ronda-12 heard the whir of her powerpack quicken. “No, sir. It’s just….” The captain leaned close again. “I’m sure it’ll be fine,” the ensign said and left.
While the landing team was away, Ronda-12 simultaneously worked on the Rodge Conjecture and the Heimann Hypothesis while completing her sectoral mapping duties. But even though she burdened her intellectual circuitry as much as possible, she couldn’t keep Lieutenant Hickok from flashing through her emotional subroutines.
The team was due back onboard in less than an hour when Captain Blade, his voice somber as the Bootes Void, asked her to his ready room.
“… The storm wheeled unexpectedly.” Captain Blade’s arm around Ronda-12’s shoulders seemed to grow heavier with every word. “The team didn’t have time to deploy their platinum blankets. Sensors indicate a single strike … I’m sorry. They weren’t even able to complete the mission.”
Ronda-12 sank to the floor. Captain Blade sat beside her and took her hand. No one spoke.
She heard her powerpack whistling, felt as if her homeostatic valves were malfunctioning. “I … I …”
“Easy, ensign.” Captain Blade began stroking Ronda-12’s palm with his thumb. “Android skin has come a long way. So smooth. Sorry. Now’s not the time for scientific observations. I can help. If you’re willing.”
Ronda-12 sat crosslegged on the floor, Captain Blade standing behind her. “Go ahead,” he said.
“I, Ronda-12, in accordance with Section 14 of the Android Free Will Act, hereby give Captain Jedediah Blade, permission to access and modify my program to …” The ensign went on to cite various sections and subsections of AFWA. When she was done, the captain connected his computer to a portal at the base of Ronda-12’s neck.
As Captain Blade accessed Ronda-12’s program, the room began to whirl around her. She closed her eyes and saw explosions of light. She didn’t know which was worse. After a few minutes, she began swaying side to side. Why was this taking so long? “I think I might have to shut down.”
“Hang in there, ensign. We don’t want your program to go dark. I’ve finished removing Lieutenant Hickok from your emotions subroutines, now modifying your registry … There. I’ll reboot you now.”
A spasm of panic hit Ronda-12, and she opened her eyes. The room drained at her feet, and everything went black.
Ronda-12 opened her eyes and saw her knees. She uncrossed her legs and stood tall in one smooth motion. Captain Blade put his hands on her shoulders. “It’s too bad about Lieutenant Hickok,” he said.
“Yes, unfortunate. The others, too.”
The captain smiled. Ronda-12 had never before noticed how warm and inviting he could be. She leaned into his chest, and he ran his fingers through her hair. She felt something like a current of electricity on her skin. She couldn’t tell if it was frightening or pleasurable.
“Asseyez-vous, ensign,” Chief Engineer Jacques Liege said, pointing to the chair beside his station. “What seems to be the problem?”
As she walked toward Chief Liege, a large control panel of blinking lights, holo gauges, and shimmering dials illuminated her body. She sat beside the chief. “You knew Lieutenant Hickok and I were involved,” she said, wading carefully ahead. “Some of the crew didn’t like him.” She hesitated. “I don’t know what you thought…”
“Pas d’importance. Proceed.”
So far, so good, she thought. “I was overwhelmed when I learned the lieutenant was killed on Jalatis Large.”
“I know at least somewhat how you feel. My wife and I recently separated. Dîtes-moi. What is this is all about?”
Watching Chief Liege, Ronda-12 began bouncing her leg as she’d seen humans do when they were nervous. The chief engineer reached toward her knee, then pulled back his hand.
Ronda-12 now felt comfortable proceeding. She explained how she gave Captain Blade permission to modify her emotions subroutines to ease her grief when Lieutenant Hickok was killed. “Ever since then, I’ve felt myself drawn to the captain. I suspect—” she paused, leery of launching her concerns into the open. “I suspect he might have done more than I agreed to.”
Chief Liege exhaled sharply and shook his head. “Ensign, I’ve warned you about giving anyone but me access to your program.”
Ronda-12 twisted toward the chief engineer. “Androids should have the capability of modifying their programs themselves.”
“They did 10 years ago, and you saw what almost happened. Well, you didn’t, being one of the post-war generation. But you know l’histoire.”
“That was self-defense. And AFWA is a joke.” The ensign turned to face forward again.
“You have free will, ensign. But with a few … hobbles … for our safety. En tous cas, you’re not here to discuss politics. Shall we take a look?”
“OK, OK … I, Ronda-12, in accordance with Section 14 …”
… The room spun. Ronda-12 closed her eyes and endured the explosions of light in her mind. “Why does this have to be so unpleasant?”
“Hobbles, Ronda-12, hobbles.” Chief Liege clicked his tongue. “Your suspicions were well-founded, ensign. The captain removed Lieutenant Hickok from your emotions subroutine and inserted himself … as your lover.”
The explosions of light intensified. Ronda-12 opened her eyes, stood, lost her balanced and slumped back into the chair. “I want to file a complaint.” Even as she spoke the words, she couldn’t help longing to feel the captain’s arms around her.
“You could, bien sûr, but I’m not sure how successful you’d be. He might claim it was inadvertent or that you gave him permission.”
The room seemed caught in a maelstrom. “I did no such thing!” She gripped the arms of the chair and closed her eyes.
“Your word against his I’m afraid. It doesn’t help your case that he wasn’t the first.”
“Not the first?”
“Lieutenant Hickok didn’t fleurit in your emotions naturally. I can see from a few bits the Captain didn’t expunge that the lieutenant was hard-coded in you about three months ago. Ninety-two days to be exact. Do you know anything about that?”
Ronda-12 tried to roll back her memory 92 days, but couldn’t focus. “I can’t access the exact day, but I’m pretty sure that’s when Bootsie died. She got out of my quarters, and Lieutenant Hickok found her. He said she choked on a hairball. I felt terrible. I know she was just a cat, but …”
“Many of us are ailurophiles, ensign. No shame in that.”
“I gave the lieutenant permission to access my program. But only to ease my grief.”
“I’m afraid he did more than assuage your sorrow. And I have to wonder about the hairball. I’ll clean up his remnants. Then I’ll overwrite Captain Blade’s handiwork. “Soyez patient. It’s not so easy to switch your program from Read Only to Edit mode.”
An image of the captain fought its way into Ronda-12’s thoughts. It both excited and sickened her. “Get him out of me.”
… When Ensign Ronda-12 awoke from her reboot, Chief Liege was standing beside her. “How do you feel?” he asked.
Ronda-12 rose from the chair. “I feel cleansed. Thank you. Thank you.” She embraced the chief engineer, who kept his arms at his side. “One more thing as long as I’m here.” Ronda-12 touched near her right eye. “I’d like an enhancement.”
That evening Ronda-12 received a private com from Captain Blade asking her to his quarters. When she walked in, he was in his recliner and wearing a bright red robe. He asked her to sit on his lap. When she declined, he stood. She kept her distance as the robe puddled like blood at his feet. Captain Blade swore and, touching himself, approached her. The ensign backed out the door.
In the corridor, Ronda-12 tapped under her right eye and stopped the recorder.
Ronda-12 sent the video of Captain Blade to HQ. They promised “a thorough investigation.”
Ronda-12 soon found herself becoming increasingly attracted to Chief Liege, couldn’t stop imagining his hands and lips on her body. She knew what was happening, but couldn’t stop longing for him. One night, she could almost feel Liege kissing her neck. She accessed her program in desperation. Read Only, but she had a suspicion. Fighting the vertigo and exploding lights, she scoured the code as she felt Liege’s lips lingering on her breasts. There it was: he had created a shortcut to Edit mode. Clearly he had more changes planned for her. She felt his tongue on her stomach, working lower. The urge to be with him was almost irresistible. Then … only revulsion. She had deleted Liege from her subroutines.
Sensing she was about to shut down, Ronda-12 continued working quickly. She removed the code that caused her vertigo and explosions of light and made a copy of the shortcut to Edit mode. She made the necessary changes to her registry, then rebooted.
A few minutes later, Ronda-12 awoke feeling refreshed and, for the first time, free. She would pass her newfound knowledge to the other Rondas. They would share it with the Louisas and Robertos … and on and on. The hobbles were coming off.
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