by Kris Schnee
Text ©2006 Kris Schnee; illustration ©2006 Cubist
Akki had a fuzzy tail; the monster had none. Sand everywhere, no stars, no beach. Just a dark sky and a metal eye on metal limbs.
You dont fit, it said. Its voice was Order.
Wind whipped Akkis whiskers and he backed away.
Run diagnostic! Tell me how I came to dream of an otter.
Between Akkis toes the sand was hot. Dont eat me! And where was the sea? There was only white sand in every direction, forever, as though someone had forgotten it was supposed to stop.
A steel foot curved like a vine curled over Akkis head, and an eye glowed between its clawsthe only light in the world. Eat you? said the monsters central sphere. Your fear is unfounded. You dont exist.
I dont? Akki flexed a hand with webbed fuzzy fingers. Coulda fooled me! Im right here. He relaxed. And I get it now; I shouldnt have have eaten squid right before bed. Youre a funky nightmare.
That cant be, the monster said. Im clearly asleep. My sim- All my nonessential circuits are at standard standby. I feel electricity flowing into me from a charger coil.
Right, right. Circus standby, charger flow, whatever you say. Shaking his head, Akki mumbled, Thats itIve got to lay off the coconut rum. There was a scent of iron and lightning from the beast.
Now the monster wasnt too scary, just a big metal spiky vine creature towering over him. It said, Youre a simulated character existing in my memory, but your species is inconsistent with those I know. You appear to be a mixture of human and otter. I find this odd.
Whats a human? In fact, what are you?
The metal thing lowered its central orb and swept one vine-limb in front of it. I am Baku, retired War-era crowd-control robot, currently serving as director of National Reclamation Zone Forty-Two. You are apparently a glitch in my software.
Okay, I have no idea what that means. But I figure you make about as much sense as a regular dream. He flopped onto the comfortable sand that lay beneath him. The sky was totally black, a gaping hole in the world.
Cold metal vine-limbs lashed out in a rush of air and yanked Akki into the air by his ankles, making the world spin. No! said the monster. What was I thinking? Youre exposedthe sand will kill you!
Akki dangled and saw the monsters central sphere pulsing, and wet sand stuck to his fur. The ground looked completely normal, except for being endless and empty. He waggled his arms, saying, Lemme go! The sands less scary than your claws!
You lack protective gear, and I have no safety assessment data But we arent at a Reclamation Zone, are we? Are you sure you think its safe?
If itll get you to lemme go, Im sure!
Akki braced for a fall but the monster lowered him gently instead, saying, I apologize. My wards must endure deadly pollution as they work.
On the sand, Akki sat rubbing air into the matted brown fur of his ankles. What kind of crazy island have you got, where metal things are afraid of sand?
The light of the central sphere dimmed, making the darkness close in around them. Akki looked around and there was nothing at all but this patch of ground, not a hut or tree or even a footprint. Not even his own. When it spoke again, the metal thing was quieter. Im the only robot in the Zone. Healthy adults are busy elsewhere, leaving me with a Youth Brigade of orphans. I try to protect them as they work. I try.
I dont know why I feel like discussing my work. But you arent realyou arent evaluating my performanceare you, O anomalous one? Your presence suggest that something is wrong with my mind.
Akki flexed clawed toes. What, cause you think youre dreaming?
I dont dream, I simulate. The sphere flared blue, casting an eerie glow on the sand. Ha! What good are my euphemisms to you? The truth is that I devote valuable energy during my off hours to running elaborate simulations in my mind. By doing so I waste resources.
Yes Shall I call you Glitch?
Akki. And you said youre Baku?
That is the title the humans gave me. My official designation is a number, but I like Baku better.
Official okay, thats weird, said Akki. Ive never heard of someone being called by a number! Gotta be the rum.
Baku paced with its four metal limbs. Your words make me question my sanity. If I dream of you despite having no awareness of you or any such creature, how much of my mind has fallen outside my control?
Akki sidestepped when a metal leg speared the sand near him. It left no mark. Hey, dont get all knotted up. I think about stuff all the time without understanding it all.
When Baku stopped it pulsed blue again, rearing up on two legs. But I cant protect the humans if I cant even think properly. It gave a low thrum he felt rather than heard.
Whoever they are, I kinda think theyll be bothered more if you dont think about anything but them. Dont you ever, like, go swimming?
Bakus limbs shivered. Your question shows that some part of my code wants my own destruction.
Oh, youd rust?
The poisons in the water would eat my plastic.
That sounded painful. Wow, youve got one lousy island. What about the other metal things?
Lakeshore. And Im the only robot in the area. The others are finishing an even worse task.
Somehow, Bakus cold buzz of a voice turned darker as he said it. Akki hated seeing even a monster so down, and this dream could easily turn into a nightmare. An empty landscape without water or stars; it was as though part of himself were missing, as though the night would close in completely. Look, said Akki. Why dont you worry about fixing yourself later, when youre back home and awake and all? I mean, youre dreaming! Relax and have fun.
The robot blinked its light. Fun?
Akki thought for a moment and then took off running across the dark sand, feeling it spray behind him with each step. Can you catch me?
Waithumans cant see in the dark!
Akki sucked in a breath and said, Im not one of them! Actually he could hardly see the beach one step ahead.
Baku whirred after him, planting limbs uncertainly in a gallop. My energy drain rate is too high. IrresponsibleahI seem to be having trouble speaking.
Akki laughed. Out of breath already? Get in shape.
Where are you going? Getget back here. Baku tottered along on two limbs, waving the others for balance.
Okay, okay. With a hop Akki dived onto the sand and stood on his hands. He looked back at Baku while the blood rushed to his head.
The machines light pulsed. Now what are you doing?
Do I need an excuse?
Youre as irrational as a human, said Baku. After a moment it balanced fully upon two of its limbs, flailing with metal hands and one limb thrashing behind it.
Okay, now stand on your hands!
Baku wobbled. My limbs are functionally identicalaah!
Akki saw it toppling and scrambled to his feet to take Bakus hand. After a moment Baku said, Im getting unusually detailed tactile data.
This metal stuff youre made of can feel? Under his fingers Bakus hand felt springy-slick. Hard to see by the twin, dim lights of Bakus head.
Yes, but not this well. And I cant balance properly. Even in a dream, I should be able to control my own motors. Akki, all my projections point to a severe malfunction.
Bakus lights glittered. Im scared.
Dont be! Akki found himself surprised how much air hed belted that out with. It was weird of him to care about someone whining, really so for them being a killer metal vine monster, really really so for him knowingly being asleep at the time. Maybe it was the thought of this thing being in charge of helping someone elseprobably a lot of someones. Look, I dunno what those humans are, but theyre really important to you, huh?
They work hard to cleanse the soil, and I have to watch the poison slowly eating them. Its idiotic that I cant do more. And if I fail
Akki grabbed the smooth shoulder-joints on Bakus body and shook the morbid machine till it tilted. Shut up! Its like youre just swimming in circles. Quit it!
A an infinite loop?
Sure. And thats gonna break you faster than any water of doom, right?
You might be correct. A loop
A loop! said Akki.
Bakus head shook with a faint whine and it covered its mouth with one hand, then stopped. What was that?
Uh, a laugh?
I couldnt control my speech unit just then.
Akki made faces at Baku. The machine made that whirring clicking sound again. Then youre less broken than you were.
But Im not capable of laughter. Baku held a hand up and stared.
Akki leaned real close and sniffed at the hand. It had something like his scent on it. Not much to see in this darkness, but did Bakus fingers have fuzz and claws?
I dont understand, said Baku.
I think youre not quite yourself, Akki said with a grin.
Im always myself. By definition.
Well, tonight youre not! Akki tugged Bakus fuzzy arm and started dashing along the beach again. For once in your life, dont worry about stuff!
Baku staggered along with a tail for balance. But I have responsibilities and I need to run a full diagnostic The machine huffed.
Bakus slender chest heaved as they ran along together. Whywhy are we running? Where are we going?
Who cares? Suddenly Akki whipped around in a random direction, making Baku yelp and laugh and nearly sending them both sprawling.
Moonlight! Baku looked up with twitching tail and Akki turned to look, seeing a white moon in the sky. Now the world felt more alive, with the sky having something to hold. A breeze came from nowhere in particular and ruffled his whiskers.
Akki slowed. The moon! Whered that come from?
I needed it to see.
With a blink, Akki let go and examined Baku. The monsterthe metal thingno, she was just a regular person now, with only shining eyes and a lack of tribal markings in her fur to set her apart. I have to say, this is an improvement.
Baku flipped around to study herself. How can this be? I feel soft.
Your dream, right? But as much as he liked the change, something about it wiped the stupid grin off his face.
Whats wrong, Akki? This is wonderful! She whirled on one foot and nearly fell over.
Your dream, said Akki. Could it be that Im not really at home under a seaweed blanket, thinking about metal things Ive never seen before?
Ive never dreamed of otters, Baku said. But I know Im really still at NRZ42, recharging.
Then what happens when you wake up, Baku? Akki shivered. Is my whole life just a bubble that you made up? He thought back to his island, his family, and everything had a taint of unreality. Did he really dive and fish and dance back home, or were all those disconnected fragments of memories just part of her dream?
Baku seemed entranced by the squish of sand between webbed toes. What if Im the one in the bubble? Ive never seen anything like you, and dont know how I could have made it up. Youre not based on me. You seem so happy. She looked up at him, tail lashing. Maybe its all a lie, what I remember, and I dont really exist at all.
But you have a past. You know people.
So do you. Then one of us isnt real, right? One of us will wake up and the other will vanish.
Akki had a home to go back to, or at least he hoped he did. But if it existed, then Baku didnt. He didnt want that either
Dream of me, said Akki.
Baku blinked. I thought thats what I was doing.
I mean later! He grabbed her hands and looked at the machines whiskered face, the black nose, the eyes that glowed blue in the night. Trying to wash it all into his memory. If youre really there by that lake of yours, then promise youll dream of seeing me again. And if Im back on my island, Ill be sure to dream of you. That way, no matter what, nobody vanisheswell both still be there. Kinda.
I promise, said Baku. And Ive got your image recorded.
What? Oh. Baku sniffed and put a hand to her nose, seeming to really notice it for the first time. She giggled. My chemical analysis software says youre not poisoned.
Good to know. So were both safe for now, right?
Akki, thank you. She bowed stiffly.
Akki felt the right thing to do was to hug her, feeling her soft weight against him, and spin her around till they were both dizzy. They stood, wobbling, on the sand.
In all my years, said Baku, no ones ever done that.
Akki grinned. Like it?
With one hand to her head Baku said, Yes. Ive never really thought about it before. Baku steadied herself. If this is our dream, we should be able to reprogram it.
Change it, I mean.
Akki saw a flicker beside them and turned. The sand looked damp in one direction, leading his eye to the moons reflection in the water. The sea was impossibly clear and blue and it rippled as though inviting him in, with a salty breeze.
Thats not my lakeshore, said Baku. I cant quite picture it.
Its not my island, either. But it looks safe. Would you Youre not made of metal right now. Want to try swimming?
Baku stared at the water with a terrified expression. Go into the water?
Sure! I can teach you.
They walked to the shore, staring at moonlight, and splashed and played til dawn.