When they sat down to dinner, Emmeline spent her first minute at the table staring at their golden forks. Where had they come from? Last time, they were made of cheap silver amalgam. Her fingers turned one over. Then she realized that her nanobots understood her sense of color and had decided to make the change. They had created a gold-colored surface. Amazing. She had a forkful of mahi in her mouth, savoring it, before she realized that the most straightforward way for her bots to do this was to use nanobot bodies. She might be chomping down on a microscopically thin covering of them.
She decided not to mention the idea to David.
"On the planet, TR-56g," he said as he took his seat. He set down an art object next to him. He'd been rummaging through his collection. "I think it's amazing that those creatures we saw haven't been named."
"They've named themselves," she pointed out.
"Right. I mean that the AIs haven't decided what humans should call them. The natives have some kind of language, obviously, but the sounds are mostly not in our hearing range. We won't use their words."
"Well, I suppose we can't."
"They're the first near-intelligent animals we've met with blue skin."
"Huh." That was an idea that should have occurred to her as soon as she saw them. The robots had been lecturing her about how to act, though. David had turned down the lectures to think for himself, he said, and apparently he had. "Just having bare skin instead of feathers or fur or something is unusual. But blue, yeah, that's rare. One of my assistants told me, when we were on the cerulean beach watching them, they have anthocyanin in their blood and in their skin. About thirty-five percent of native animal life has it."
"Is that what makes them blue?"
"Yes." Emmeline paused as she realized that David understood.
"Hey," he laughed, "we should call them Blueberries."
The term sounded a bit insensitive. The earliest generations of AIs would have gone along with the name, of course, but nowadays they tended to look ahead to how nicknames might become derogatory in the future. They assessed the probability. If they hadn't suggested a name with 'blue' in it already they probably thought the risk of stereotyping was high.
She raised her eyebrows at her train of thought.
"How would you know about anthocyanin giving berries their color?" she asked. She had only learned it a few days ago and with a great deal of explanation from her AIs.
"I spent time with the Okanagan tribe. For a while, I was with the Amish and before them, the New Potomac tribe. I made food with them all in their different ways. We made art. We made cloth dyes. They aren't dumb. They've ditched advanced technology to live in the park systems, yeah, but they know an amazing amount of science that's relevant to their lives."
She remembered that David's parents had been worried he would leave the technocracy entirely and go to live in one of the forest habitats. It was a benefit of their robot-governed society that everyone got to share but mostly, it was the poor who lived as hunter-gatherers. By all accounts, it was an immensely satisfying daily existence. Tribal life was friendly by law. All of the park inhabitants, even the wild animals, received healthcare and supervision from the habitat AIs. Lives in the ecologically preserved parts of the world were long and healthy, within reason.
"Are you still planning on visiting the Okanagan again?"
"Nah." He waved off the suggestion. "That stuff was before I met you. If I couldn't get along with other people outside of the parks, I'd probably go back. But with you, I'm happy."
Well, that was flattering and awkward. She hadn't meant to be the answer to his parent's prayers. On the other hand, her own parents had been awfully happy after their background investigation on David. She wondered if they'd known about this part of him already.
"The Okanagan know wormholes," he said. "At least, one of them does."
"Why would they care about something like that?"
"The environmental angle. There's a religious angle, too. Matter with negative energy density fulfills one of the Okanagan ideas about creation."
"Creation of what?"
"Of everything. The universe. The Okanagan just say 'creation.' Anyway, it's all connected. We use negative energy density to stabilize wormholes. This guy figures that means humanity has gained the powers of creation."
"So the tribes are fine with the wormholes?"
"They don't care about them. They're against us having the powers of creation, though."
"Weird." She put down her fork. Her forearm trembled. The park tribes seemed so opposed to her lifestyle. There was no way she could ever abide with them. If David visited again, he would have to go without her.
"They've got the right attitude about wormholes. That part of the environment doesn't matter. Even if everyone's right about the swiss cheese problem, we've only made two extra wormholes. As big as space is, that's nothing."
She knew what he meant. The holes were huge, of course, big enough for a hundred thousand spaceships at once. They were crude and they were a bit rude. But in terms of universal sizes, they didn't add up to much.
"The problem is not about our trip," she insisted. "I'm all for the trip."
"Are you concerned about the Burba, then? Our robots will keep them in their place."
"Of course." That hadn't even occurred to her. "Our military has contained worse threats. Like those huge things living in those gas giants. They were awful. They even had some kind of primitive interstellar flight."
"I just wonder if, from another point of view, we're the threat. I mean, we tear around the galaxy like nobody's business. They say that we could target wormholes to other galaxies next. At the very least, now that our AIs understand dark energy, that kind of stuff isn't out of the question."
"Eh, we've already put a robot into the Snickers galaxy."
"Isn't that the spaceship that's the size of a grape?"
"Yeah, but the instrumentation on it is good. And come on, we sent it out of our galaxy."
"I wish we could do it without using up dark matter. And without destroying little parts of the universe."
David picked up the object he'd brought to the table. It was a sculpture he'd taken from TR-56g. The natives had carved it out of shell casings and resins. Most of the fish on their planet seemed to have jointed armor. The natives polished the armor pieces and combined them with epoxies they distilled from cartilage. That allowed them to seamlessly join the shells. Her robots told her that the natives fashioned the vast majority of their utensils out of the same materials.
They didn't have many tools, really, but when they did have them, they were custom made. It was either very primitive or rather sophisticated, depending on your opinion of the fabrication process. Since the native bodies varied so much in size and shape, there was no easy way to go into mass production. Everyone's tools were their own. Plus, everyone seemed able to make whatever they needed on the spot.
"This poor guy is really good at it," her husband mumbled.
Her ears perked up. "Why is he a 'poor guy?'"
"He's ... wow, this is tough to explain. He said through the interpreter AI that they have four and a half sexes. The interpreter kept correcting him to say that the natives have two sexes and three non-sexed members of the species."
"I learned that part," she said.
"So, roughly, it's male and female but also a second-male who assists in the process, a second-female needed for reasons I don't understand and sometimes a non-sexed person to supervise. It's weird. I gather the second-male mates but the babies are never his. This guy is aware of that."
"My robot never mentioned that they understood it."
"Yeah. This guy, he made a series of frustrated sculptures of himself and his brother, a first-male, as if they were different. There are depictions of him as a mother-female, as a first-male, as a second-female, even as the non-sexed dude, very small and big-headed and peaceful-looking. He did up his brother as a second-male and as a mother-female. His brother liked those. For some reason, everyone else in their tribe found the sculpture of a second-male depicted as a first-male to be disturbing. That's this one. He gave it to me."
"How much did you pay?" The native currency was rare shells. The AIs had collected a bunch for Emmeline and David prior to their arrival.
"Nothing. He gave it."
"You mean as a gift?" She sat up straighter. "What does it mean?"
"Nothing. He said he hoped I would remember him. He hoped I wouldn't die."
"Why does he think you'll die?" The AIs were generally protective of humans and tried to project them as smarter, stronger, and near-immortal to the natives of every planet. That didn't seem to have worked this time.
"It's part of their religion or something. Everyone dies. Although I have to say, that's not so much religion as observation."
"Shit. Did he tell you about the other visitors?"
"It didn't arise in conversation with him. But yeah, the subject came up when I talked with his mother-female, actually. Remember when I walked off with a group of them to sit on a hill? I met the mother-female and second-female. They didn't like me being friends with their second-male. You know how their limbs get longer when they're mad? They got a bit tall with me. And of course they had to mention that about eight generations ago, they had other visitors like us."
"Not possible," she repeated what her AI had told her.
"Yeah, our robots lectured me on that, too. But the natives insist it's the case. They had visitors in something like a spaceship. Those people looked like bugs or maybe they wore spacesuits that made them appear like crustaceans or something. Anyway, after a bunch of visits, they left and never returned."
"The AIs would be more worried if they thought that was real. They told me the visitors had to be other natives of the planet. They probably came in a boat, not even on a plane, and the story got garbled. Now there are no boats in evidence anywhere so the civilization that was building them must have fallen."
"Could be. I'm not sure our natives would know the difference. They're sort of fatalistic anyway. They figure those strangers killed themselves off. That's why the visits stopped."
"Ah, now I get it. They're worried we'll do the same. We'll have a war and wipe ourselves out or something. Well, the AIs say the folks on TR-56g have a long oral history. They must know it can happen. And they can track years, star movements, and so on. They can do math, although their accounting systems aren't standardized so they have to be figured out differently from place to place and from era to era."
"Cool." He smiled at the thought, probably imagining colorful constructions for shell counting or other artistic creations. "I mean, that sounds like a pain for the AIs."
She laughed at his awkward sense of tact. Inspired, she raised her glass of champagne in a toast. He returned the gesture with a smile.
When the robots re-filled their glasses a minute later, they spilled a drop from David's glass. It made Emmeline laugh. David, too. Even AIs had trouble with centripetal forces. Normality returned. The conversation moved on to complaints about their spaceship, their robots, and their families. One of the robots, a waiter, volunteered the fact that artificial gravity was difficult to engineer. Emmeline responded that they needed a few more generations of AI improvements and that would give humanity the ability to manipulate gravity. Then she and David ignored the robots for a long time. They spent at least an hour teasing each other about the nannies and tutors they'd known as children.
Afterwards, they made love. They managed it the next day and the next, too. Emmeline felt that some frequency was expected. Also, she loved how each time was different. Sometimes her husband was so awkward, it was all she could do to not laugh.
She'd learned that giggling at his attempts was a mistake. Nevertheless, she found everything about them charming. Sometimes he was so unexpected that he generated a weird thrill in her. He would try things with her body that no one had thought to include in a program, a least not ones that her family AI filters permitted. She wondered if she'd been missing out.
Sometimes it was dumb stuff like licking her neck or rubbing her nipples with butter. Those laughable starts could turn sensual for her, though, and he had the oddest hesitations. He was not at all like a programmed sex robot. For one thing, he had to stop to think.
"David," she said after a session. "When did you know I was right for you?"
He flopped backwards against his pillow. Emmeline had chosen the bedroom decor, three patterns. The bedspread and quilt were brown and yellow gingham threads over a white background. At the time, the set of covers had looked good. It was starting to feel less comfy and more stodgy, though. She would want the robots swap it out soon.
David's left hand drifted lazily down to the sheet. He pulled it over the lower half of his body without thinking. That was another way he was different than a robot. He had a sense of modesty. He took a deep breath.
"You're not going to like it." He rubbed his chin as he thought.
She thought of all the ways the conversation could go. He was probably right.
"Oh, come on," she insisted. It might be torture but she wanted to know.
"It was during our first conversation." The back of his hand slid across his forehead. Sweat had been about to drip into his eyes. She'd seen this happen for months. Still, Emmeline found herself mentally adjusting to the fact that sex made him tired. He seemed to like it well enough anyway.
"That early?" She had taken much longer to decide about him.
"We were trading jokes and stories." He gazed up at the ceiling. "I said something about one of your family's robot series, one of the commercial failures that I thought was funny and sort of interesting."
"About the Hoplite series. I remember."
"I've had how many conversations with robots? Tens of thousands?" His brown eyes narrowed as he calculated. "Hundreds of thousands? In any robot conversation, there's always a reply. No matter how tactless I am, no matter how boring my observation, no matter anything I do, there's a response. No conversation ends with one of my robots unless I end it. But you ended that one."
"Did I?" She rolled his direction in the bed. A moment later, she shimmied back to her spot. "No, I didn't, really. I remember it was awkward but we went on."
"It was a different conversation. As to my comment, you were silent. You blanked. In fact, you didn't seem to feel that you needed to respond to that sort of rude remark. You dismissed it with a flicker of your eyelids."
She waited for him to go on.
"It was just so ... you. So perfect. You are the most real person of our class who I've ever met. Well, real and my age. Do you know what I mean?"
She nodded, understanding all too well.
"You're the first who is undeniably real and who isn't nearly two hundred years old. You were thinking like a human. Like yourself. And you were so real. It was like getting hit with a brick."
"Not as painful as that," she prompted.
"Oh, it hurt. A lot. But it also felt loving. You smiled sweetly a heartbeat later and started a different conversation. I think, a few minutes after that, something happened inside me and I started falling in love."
Emmeline pulled a pillow over her face, uncomfortable with looking at him. Beneath it, she wondered if she'd been manipulated into this marriage. It was crazy. Any partnership like this at all was insane. She was too dumb. David was mentally challenged.
She took a deep breath. The cover of the pillow felt like it was suffocating her. Her left arm flipped it away. It bounced, gingham brown, yellow, and white, on a slightly weird path across their cabin in the artificial gravity.
When she glanced at David, afraid to encounter his glare, she found that he'd covered his face too. A ragged breath made him sound like he was about to hyperventilate. She had forgotten this was as hard for him as for her. She grabbed him by the shoulder and cuddled up. He shivered as if he were cold. His skin felt chilly. For some reason, that made her laugh.
Universal Nature, Scene Three