I am, by many measures, a failure as a human. I have no empathy, no sympathy. I am not emotionally expressive. This past weekend we saw Daughter #1 formally off to college. My wife was a wreck. I gave my girl a hug and said “call or text if you’ve problems; later.”
It’s not that I don’t have and express emotions, it’s that I choose where to do it and even then can get blind-sided. I thought the short story of “Old Friends” was going to be a harmless reunion. Until I was more than halfway into the project did they show me that John Brunelli was unwell. Nichole’s reaction to that was so severe that I was unable to write. Yes, you read that correctly: a character’s reaction to a revelation in my own head was so strong I couldn’t function properly.
I was finally able to sneak up on it in pieces. I could split it, but why make y’all any more miserable than I was? Here’s the last part of “Old Friends.” I so need to write something light and fluffy next…
Nichole slipped out of bed early in the morning, before the sunrise, still in her camisole and panties. While John had been a little surprised at her request, after brushing his teeth and using the bathroom he lay down on her bed without a word.
In fact, Nichole thought, easing past the door and going downstairs, the only time he touched me was when he rolled over and his strong right arm was across my stomach. Such a gentleman!
As she was at about 54% power it had not bothered her that she didn’t take time to charge overnight. Quietly she prepped for his breakfast – an omelet – while considering their day’s agenda.
My words last night aside, I don’t want to turn this into an interrogation or just a data-dump! Perhaps as I suggested: we take a walk together and see where our feet and words take us. Extrapolating from that, she sent a message to Kadena’s Officer of the Day to ask permission to bring a foreign national civilian there for a tour. Thinking of that message forced her to deal with the one from Reina yesterday.
Nichole sat at her kitchen table and plugged the high-speed cable first into the wall and then, after spreading apart a bit of her skin on the back of her neck, into herself. It was much better to deal with her cousins who were pure code this way.
Her house dissolved and she was standing the entryway of Reina’s simulation of Kuban’s restaurant. She had constructed it from her father’s – her maker’s – description of an opulent café he had once visited as a child. Nichole knew that Reina used it as a meeting place for those of Machine Civilization and humans. The richly stained oak door with frosted glass inlay opened behind her. Nichole turned and gave a polite bow.
“Took you long enough!” To Nichole’s eyes, Reina was a boyish-looking girl of about sixteen. Short hair that was brown or reddish, depending on the light, with a single, inch-wide strip down the right side of her face. She wore a thin black leather overcoat atop a dirty off-white shirt. Dark grey pants and boots. Dressed like a Chekist.
“Apologies,” Nichole replied. “I had a houseguest and was occupied.”
“Human?” Reina asked, indicating her favorite table just to her right.
“Yes,” Nichole said, sitting opposite her. “A friend I have not spoken to for nearly forty of their years.”
“Another of your ‘friends’?” the AI asked with a curl to her lip.
“Very much,” Nichole’s was softer but her eyes never wavered. “Once, when I died, he saved me.”
Clearly not pleased with that statement, Reina used her right hand to toss her strand of hair.
“So. Tell us about Mars,” she demanded, right to the point.
To an outside, human, observer, it would have appeared that their eyes were locked and their bodies totally still.
“Well, now,” the younger-seeming one allowed, leaning back and considering the gigabytes of data, “that is something! I’m passing this onto the Science Minister now.”
Two crystal glasses, half full of a clear liquid appeared before them. Reina raised hers.
“Thank you, cousin,” she said, tossing the contents into her mouth and the glass into the surrounding darkness with a crash.
“You are welcome, cousin,” Nichole replied, doing the same. I know this is a very Russian custom – for humans – but she seems quite taken with it.
“I’m sure,” Reina continued with her unpleasant smile, seeming the only one she owned, “that there is more what you have shown me. That will be up to your Empress to decide whether or not to share?”
“Of course.” Machines could keep secrets from one another with little harm. Lying could result in a worldwide extinction event in seconds.
Distantly, Nichole was aware of the stairs creaking in her home.
“I must see to my houseguest,” she said, standing and bowing. “Thank you for hosting me.”
“Not at all,” Reina said, also standing.
“My best to your mother and father – ” Nichole froze to see the girl’s snarl of hate.
“My father died two of their days ago; hunting accident in Siberia.”
I’m always saying the wrong thing!
She could only bow again, deeper.
“I am sorry for your loss!”
Her mind was suddenly frozen in ice. The ice sublimated away and she was looking at her kitchen table.
“Nichole?” John asked from behind her, his right hand on her right shoulder. “To judge from this cord are you having breakfast alone?”
She jerked it out as she turned and stood, embracing his great form as best hers could.
“A chat with a cousin of mine; business,” she replied, looking up at him. “But I am ready to make yours! Are omelets okay?”
“Yeah,” he replied, looking down to her with much the same intensity that Reina did.
Following his breakfast, she then followed his plaintive cry from upstairs. John waved vaguely at the Japanese bath and shower set, at a loss as to how to work it. Nichole gave a pretend, clothes-on demonstration and left him alone. In that time she picked out a pair of shorts and a bright, sleeveless top. She was back downstairs checking the coins in her purse when she heard the water shut off and him making his way to her room and his bag. He was in badly faded blue jeans and a patched short-sleeve shirt to join her a few moments later. Nichole held the door open as he picked up his cane.
“We go!” she smiled.
They made their way southwest this time, along the winding road in the woody hills. What few people they encountered all had a smile and wave for Nichole.
“You are always the center of attention, aren’t you?” he asked with a smile.
“Kinda hard not to be, given my looks!” She had slowed their pace when she could tell he was getting a little winded. Since he appeared in good condition, Nichole was concerned that there might be something else wrong with him.
“You work out of the airbase?” he asked, holding her right hand with his left.
“For the last eight years, yes.” Another wave. “For ten years Kadena is the official HQ of the 18th Space Fleet, but that’s really just on paper. We put together task forces as a given mission demands.”
She grabbed a ripe red papaya from a tree they passed and leaned to hold it up to his mouth. He took a bite.
“Delicious!” he announced. She stopped them to take a cloth from her back pocket to dab at the juice on the sides of his mouth before handing him the rest of the fruit.
“Much fruit where you live, John?” she asked.
“Mostly apples. Some blue, black, and strawberries,” he replied, taking another bite. “Certainly nothing tropical like this!”
“You said you farmed. What, mostly?” she started them walking again.
“Some of those apple trees I just mentioned, around the fringe of our land. A little corn – that got traded to the distillers – mostly wheat. Once my boys were old enough to help we started keeping first pigs, then some goats, too.” He looked at her, holding the papaya rind.
“Just toss it!” He did. She watched him try to get his hand cleaned off before finally just grabbing it.
“I clean up pretty easy, friend! Don’t worry about a little fruit juice!” From his eyes and feeling in his palm, she pushed. “We can take a bath together tonight, okay?”
She was concerned when John shook his head, but then saw he was smiling.
“That college puke! What a lucky guy he was! Ghaa!” he suddenly yelled flinching to a crouch as a great shadow fell over them.
Nichole looked up, beholding the three-hundred-meter diameter dark sphere passing slowly and completely silently over them.
“That’s the cruiser Takao,” she replied, helping him back up. “She’s due for on-ground maintenance.”
His hand in hers was still shaking as the massive ball drifted to the southwest, slowly passing from sight.
“C… cruiser?” he managed at last. “I’d piss myself if I saw a battleship, I bet!”
“You’ll only see them on paper right now!” she replied with her laugh. “The Attu Treaty of the Polar Alliance strictly regulates warship tonnage and my cousins make sure no one cheats.”
“Your cou… c… *cough*!” his words devolved into such a fit of coughing that she summoned paramedics while sitting him onto a curb in the shade.
“John,” she asked, just above a whisper, “are you unwell?”
His coughs subsided but he could not seem to catch his breath.
“You… I said… another reason… I came… for you…”
“John! Please stop talking! An ambulance,” she just now heard the siren, “will be here in moments!”
In his typical bull-headed, contrarian nature he carried on.
“Heart… failing. Docs gave me six months…” the ambulance was next to them; two men leaped out the back. “That was five months ago…”
He turned grey as he seemed to sag into himself.
While the doctors and nurses worked quickly and efficiently to get Brunelli stable, Nichole pulled rank, experience, and notoriety to reach out to her human friends and machine family: how can we save this man? In the hours once the tests were back and he had been moved from Emergency to ICU, their conclusion was the same: caught at least nine months ago his heart could have been repaired. Now? Hours; perhaps one or two days.
Nichole stood still next to his bed in his room in the Naka Hospital. The on-base facility might have been better but this was closest to where they had been picked up. She looked at his liter bag of NS and the Cardizem 250mL drip to ease his heart muscles. While no longer grey, he did not look well.
She heard his faint groan as his eyes flickered slightly.
“Still alive. Dammit,” he sighed.
Nichole leaned over him and pressed her lips to his.
“Be at peace, friend John,” she said, “I am here.”
His eyes opened just a little wider.
“N… Nichole? It wasn’t all a dream?” now they leaked tears. “I thought finding you was just a dream as I lay dying…”
“I am here, John. I will never leave you!”
He barely managed to lift his right hand onto the small of her back.
“Always did love you… Mindy’s gonna kill me when I see her…” she felt him fall back into sleep at that. Lowering her head to listen, she considered the sounds of his dying heart. She stood and sent messages to the hospital staff, summoning some, directing others.
John slowly opened his eyes. The sun was westering but was falling behind a line of clouds just up from the horizon. Below them was a stretch of the most amazing blue-green sea he had ever seen.
“It’s beautiful,” he muttered.
“Yes. I’m older to know that.” Nichole’s voice, from just behind his right ear.
“Please don’t move, John. Look down. See? Your legs inside mine: you are in my lap right now,” she explained. “This is Toguchi Beach, just a little bit from the hospital.”
“Hospital? Oh, yeah… when I saw you and realized this was not a dream. I actually made it to Japan… to see you…”
A few dozen meters ahead and to their right a little boy and his fluffy dark grey dog were running about in the tame surf, laughing and playing.
“This,” his voice caught, “this isn’t just any sunset. Is it, Nichole?”
“No, John,” she crossed her arms about him and leaned forward to kiss the side of his head. “This is your last. Here.”
“’Here?’” he laughed and cried back at her. “You said you ain’t Catholic!”
“I am not. But that does not mean I don’t know what a miracle is; what the transcendent is.” She paused to ask a question in her inhuman whisper: “You do know what that word means, right, John?”
“Yes, Nichole, yes: Mindy was a great teacher…” his voice grew softer. All of her senses told her it was his time –
“Hey, Mister!” the little boy and his dog were now only yards away. How did they approach so close without me knowing – and why is he speaking English? She could tell he was Japanese but could not see his face properly…
“Time to go, Mister!” the boy laughed again.
In her lap, she felt his last breath fall out of him. John Brunelli was gone.
The little dog yipped once. It was a sound she had logged decades ago.
“Lucky Star!” she said at the little dog’s blurry form.
“Is… is that you, Nike?” she asked to the taller blur.
“Nope! Just a messenger! We’re here to see John home. You take care of yourself, Nichole 5 Clarke!”
At her name the water in her eyes – impossible! – broke free and coursed down her cheeks without end. She opened her mouth and howled her loss to the sea and sky.
Mark Brunelli, hearing all the commotion of the animals back at his farmhouse, made a joke to the two hands who were helping dig post holes: he was hoping to start raising cattle next year so needed to close off some of his land.
“Wonder what my girl, little Nikky, done stirred up this time!” he said.
The man opposite him and thus looking back at Mark’s farmhouse started to smile but froze in terror. Mark whirled about…
A flying saucer. There was nothing else it could have been called. Nearly black and about thirty yards across, from what he could tell at this distance. It was just at tree level but descending slowly. He was back on his horse and at full gallop in seconds.
What-in-the-hell?! he wondered. Coming through the line of apple trees there was some woman in uniform talking to Nikky. Dammit! He drew his Henry Repeating Rifle from next to his right leg and put a shot into the air.
Nikky looked at him and waved with her left; she had a box in her right. Not smiling but not scared. The woman took a few steps back and seemed to jump up into –
It was gone. No sound; no rush of engines or air. Just…gone.
He reined up, made sure the rifle’s safety was on, and jumped off his horse, running to his girl.
“Nikky! Nikky!” he yelled, carefully setting the rifle down. “Are you okay?!”
“Yes, Pa!” she gave a huge sniffle, trying very hard to be brave. “That angel just now brought us back Grandpa’s ashes!”
For just a second his eyes flicked to the brushed metal box she clutched close to her chest.
“I dun asked her if she’d seen Grandpa in Heaven,” another sniffle, now with tears. “She said ‘not personally but I know he is there’!”
Mark Brunelli stood and looked all about the sky. What… who was that? Scooping his daughter and her treasure up into his arms, he said, “Let’s go show your Ma. And you tell her all about meeting an angel!”