You could only see the blinking red light in Perl’s eyes if you looked at them from just the right angle.
Or, if there was a reflective surface somewhere in the room.
It’s why she hated mirrors, they always reflected right back at her, her wires tinging with sour jealousy of all her human companions, red light blinking on and off, machinery whirring, and metal limbs twitching.
Another emotion she wasn’t supposed to be able to feel, wasn’t supposed to know of.
And yet, as she sat on the luxurious leather seat, she couldn’t help but glare with envy at each person in turn.
The smiling woman who was talking as she rubbed lotion on her already smooth skin.
The tall man as he pulled a jacket on his shivering body.
The giggling child as she sucked on a small lollipop.
All of them signifying things Perl couldn’t, and would never be able to do.
Her skin was made of expensive material that would never grow dry enough to warrant lotion. She could shift her body temperature however she liked. And her tongue, though very lifelike, would never allow her to taste.
She sat idle, her database automatically scanning them each in turn, small lines of code running in the corner of her vision. Her right index finger twitched and she moved her optics towards it.
That’d been happening a lot lately. Likely a glitch somewhere in her programming.
Rather, another glitch.
She had a whole list of them.
The computer in her head wouldn’t let her think of anything rationally without involuntarily storing a list of it.
The first was that she wasn’t supposed to feel anything.
“Would you like anything miss?”
Perl’s ears adjusted their volume as the attendant spoke. Useless information regarding speech patterns and translations whirred across her vision. She blinked them away.
“Sorry?” Her voice rung back in her own ears. It was not unlike that of a human, but she wasn’t used to having to speak so often.
“I said would you like anything? Refreshments?”
Perl moved her tongue around her mouth, her sensors allowing her to actually feel the touches.
Her body didn’t need food or water anyway.
“No mas-No. Thank you.” She twisted her lips upward in what she hoped looked like a smile. The attendant nodded and moved on.
Perl blinked long and hard.
Old habits were hard to beat. She’d almost called two people ‘master’ since she’d boarded the ship.
She wiggled her toes in the black boots she’d found last minute. Someone sat in the seat next to her and she didn’t need to look to know they had probably already glued their eyes to their phones.
Perl didn’t care much for the thin pieces of glass that seemed to break more often than they were used. Besides, she could do anything they did on them in her head.
To her surprise, when she turned to the side, the person next to her was not on their phone.
They weren’t even doing anything. They simply stared at the window ahead.
This time, Perl allowed information to cloud her vision.
The average citizen maybe had their name, a couple of photos, and one or two social media profiles online. Perl curiously read as paragraphs of information loaded onto her database. Her fan whirred quietly, and though she knew no one would be able to hear it, she still was bothered by the constant reminders that she wasn’t human.
Before Perl could finish reading a long paragraph about the mysterious person’s career, her volume rose considerably as he began to speak.
“Do I have something on my face?” His deep voice startled her, and the information scattered, leaving her staring into the face of the man.
“Oh!” Her processor heated slightly, her temperature rising against her will. Perl shifted in her seat, uncomfortable with the feeling.
What was this?
“I’m sorry. No, I was just-well-” The man laughed, and Perl felt herself relax. He had a nice laugh.
Not that she’d heard many before.
“I’m only joking. I’m Eric, you are?” He stuck his hand out towards her.
Perl only stared at his perfectly real hand for a moment, enthralled by the actual real skin and the knuckles and-
You’re supposed to shake it.
Something inside her reminded her of the human customs and she felt her processing heat up again as she jerked her arm forward, clasping it together with Eric’s.
“A pleasure. Wow, your hand is cold.” He rubbed his hand on his jacket when he let go and Perl clenched it in a fist.
A side effect of having mainly metal limbs, she supposed. And since her temperature was acting up, she felt how it might’ve felt for Eric. Chilly and maybe a little cold.
Except for her insides, which were still warm.
“It’s beautiful, right?” Eric nodded towards the window, his hands in his pockets.
Perl followed his eyes and stared at the open space in front of them. The stars glittered and information about space began to make its way into her vision. She started reading, interested.
“What’re you doing? Your eyes are moving like you’re reading something.” Eric creased his eyebrows, thinking.
For the second time, the information scattered and Perl blinked. Usually, she could leave it there if she wanted it. She stared at him, her own eyes narrowing.
She shifted in the now uncomfortable leather seat and adjusted her temperatures to room temperature.
She wanted to feel human sometimes.
“Nothing.” Her programming seemed to scream at her. She wasn’t made to lie.
Before Eric could dwell on it for too long, the attendant came back around.
“Sir, ma’am, a movie will be playing in about ten minutes in the entertainment room if you’d like to join in,” she said, and before either of them could answer, she’d already moved on.
Perl eyed Eric. She’d only ever watched one movie in her entire existence. And it was a documentary, all real things that made her want to gouge her optics out and clear her memory storage.
Eric stood up and moved his hand towards Perl.
“Come on, it’ll be fun.”
Perl didn’t let herself think for too long, and allowed Eric to pull her out of her seat. She suddenly felt vulnerable as they walked by people, hand in hand.
Perl had already downloaded the map of the entire ship and grew anxious as he walked somewhere that was most certainly not the entertainment room. She slipped her hand out of Eric’s and stopped walking.
“Where are we going?” she said, clenching her fist in an attempt to hold in the warmth Eric’s hand had brought.
Eric stopped as well, looking back.
“Can’t watch a movie without snacks!” He walked on and Perl narrowed her eyes, following. They rounded a corner and came to a door, labeled in messy handwriting on a paper taped haphazardly to it, ‘Food’. Eric didn’t hesitate as he turned the knob and walked inside. Perl’s optics brightened to allow her to see in the darkness.
The room was filled to the brim with boxes.
Eric walked over to a large red cardboard box and pulled out two bags. Perl scanned the label as he handed her one and they filed out.
Images of carnivals with children laughing and movie theaters filled her vision and she blinked them away.
“I-I can’t eat this.” Her hand instinctively flew to her mouth.
A glitch? In her voice?
“What, are you on some kind of diet?”
Diet: the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habituall-
“Sorry, I just don’t like...popcorn.” The word tasted different on her metal tongue. She felt almost nostalgic for something she didn’t know of. Would never know of.
“Aw, fine.” He took the bag from her.
They walked to the entertainment room, the room farthest from the cockpit and by far the largest. Half the passengers of the ship sat scattered around the room, and Eric and Perl quietly sat down side by side. The large screen remained black until the door closed and something started playing.
Perl watched Eric from the corner of her eye as he ripped open the bag and began eating. His eyes remained fixated on the screen as the movie began to play. Perl did not care to look at the screen. She’d read the title and spoilers had automatically made themselves apparent in her computer.
She looked everywhere but the screen- the wall, the people, and Eric- all in turn.
Everything bored her until she looked at Eric to see a shiny tear running down his cheek. Perl watched as it slowly fell down his face, dripping onto his shoulders.
Before she knew it, the movie was over and the lights blinked on. Eric sat in silence and wiped the tear that was still wet on his cheek. Perl rubbed her optics, whose brightness levels were out of control.
She made eye contact with Eric who smiled slightly.
“Sad movie, no?”
Perl knew that the little boy had died, she knew that left the little girl alone, alone with a father who investigated the dead.
She knew it was sad, all the reviews said so.
But she’d never know what sadness really was, would she?
“An old one though. You’d think they’d have something more recent, what with-you know.” He gestured at everything and Perl understood.
They were in a state-of-the-art spaceship.
Eric got up, placing his finished popcorn bags on the seat. He walked towards the door, beckoning Perl to follow him. She did, but stopped at the doorway, looking back as a small bot quickly took the bags from his seat.
Could’ve been her.
The door shut and they were alone in the hallway.
“You were right, it was fun. Thank you.” Perl looked away from Eric as she said it, her temperatures still acting up. Though she’d set them to room temperature previously, they seemed to ignore her, going too high one moment, and lowering the next.
“You’re welcome Perl.” the way he said her name set her temperature spiking up.
She stood frozen for a moment, recollecting herself, when Eric began to near her.
He placed his hand on her shoulder for a moment.
“Come on, we can stargaze.” He walked on, disappearing around the corner.
Perl’s hand made its way to her shoulder.
It was just cool metal pressing on cool metal, with a little crafted skin in between.
She was an it. She wasn’t supposed to be getting smiles aimed at her, wasn’t supposed to have feelings, certainly wasn’t supposed to be watching movies with a random man. A man who thought she was like him.
But she was no more than the small bot who’d cleaned up, no less than the attendant android floating around the ship.
But she was somehow broken, in the best way.
Perl followed the sound of Eric’s voice. He stood where she’d met him, standing in front of the large window.
He looked away from the thousand glittering lights floating around, looked into Perl’s optics. Somehow looked past the red light, past the machinery and into her, somehow knowing her more than she knew herself.
“I think you heard me.” She felt her wires tingling as Eric’s brows furrowed in confusion.
“No, I’m sure I didn’t. You said-”
“I’m broken, Eric.” It was the first time she’d said his name, and her database conjured images of butterflies at its sound. “I’m not supposed to be here.” She whispered, and her right index finger twitched.
“I’ll tell you a secret. Me neither.”
“I’m not real. Don’t you get it?”
“Afraid I don’t.”
Perl squeezed her metal hands into fists at her sides.
“I-I’m not human.”
Another voice glitch?
Eric hesitantly smiled.
“Is this some sort of joke? We’re in space and you pretend to be an alien? Perl-”
Perl held her hand up, signifying him to stop. He sighed.
She took his hand and placed it on her chest.
Right where her heart was supposed to be.
“What’s this got to do with….any...thing.”
He pulled his hand back like he’d been electrified.
“Get it now?”
“Perl.” He drew her name out slowly as if afraid she’d run away.
Perl shook her head. She opened the tiny compartment in her finger that was used to charge her, showing Eric.
Feelings, feelings, feelings.
She didn’t know how humans dealt with them all, but she had the faint thought that she might’ve been crying if she could’ve.
“Perl, this doesn’t really change much to me. All it does is solve the popcorn thing, I thought you were weird for a hot moment. Who doesn’t like popcorn? Those who can’t taste it, only.” He ran a hand through his hair.
“You don’t care? I’m just lines of code, I’m just programming-”
“Perl, I think you’ve got some sort of glitch then. I don’t think lines of programming are supposed to say things like that. You’ve got more personality than some humans I know. Honest.”
He didn’t know the half of it.
“You think we could stay and watch the stars for a little while?”
“Yeah, I’d like that.”
And as Perl looked at the miles and miles of space ahead, for the first time, her optics remained clear of anything besides the beauty that lay in the real world, not the online.