“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” Bahati says, plopping down beside Imani in the sand.
The beach is empty, save for a few others spread far apart. The cool sand looks like it is on fire because of the setting moon. Imani digs her feet into it, relishing its grainy texture. She sprinkles handfuls of it on her bare legs, completely covering her dark flesh.
Imani is glad to not have had a complete update in fifty days. She no longer lives under the drug-influenced haze of two perceptions. She finds herself once again wondering how she had lived being unable to see or feel the world and its vibrant life. It feels like the pills can suppress more than emotions and bodily functions.
The world had been a simple place for Imani Bot before being weaned off updates. She was a bot here to serve Khalia and Khalia’s family. There was no joy, happiness or sadness for her. She existed. That was it. She did not live. Bots do not live. But here she was, on a beach, living.
Bots are made. They have no history. They have no need for history. Yet Imani has been plagued with by many questions as of late. She is Imani, the bot. But those words, even the name, do not seem to define who she is. Inside, she feels there is more to her story, that she knows not even a small portion of her true self. Maybe she does need updates, because she might be malfunctioning.
The other day, Bahati referred to Imani as her friend. The words had warmed Imani in a way she had not experienced before. She is more than someone’s servant now. She is a friend, though she does not truly understand the purpose of friends. Bahati has tried explaining it to her and failed every time.
“This is the best place to witness a moon set,” Bahati says quietly. “I used to come here with Mother. We hadn’t been here together in over thirteen years.”
“How could you remember so many years ago when you were a child? How come I don’t have any memories? I mean memories before I came to your family?” asks Imani, wiggling her toes in the sand.
“Memories are worthless. They don’t do anything but make you sad about things you can’t change. Bots don’t have memories. Be grateful.”
“Maybe bot creators should develop memories for bots so we can know things about our pasts.”
A little boy runs past, chased by a screaming girl. She demands her things back, but the boy refuses and laughs. Imani watches them until they become specks and vanish. The two must be brother and sister. Imani has neither brother nor sister.
“Why don’t you and Ekon hang out?” Imani asks, breaking the silence. “If I had a brother, I would be his best friend.”
Bahati tilts her head, squinting at the bot, before bursting into laughter. “Are you that insane? Ekon and I are close in age, but we are nothing alike. He’s into politics, maybe world domination.”
“Your bloodline’s legacy is the high seat of the UJC, and someone has to fill it.”
“And he’s perfect for it. He’s just not a good person generally. Mother wanted me to go into politics, maybe fill her seat if something happened and Ekon couldn’t. She’s gone now, and I’m still drifting.”
The orange-tinted ocean rolls in, threatening to swallow the two. The last wave falls short and draws back, as if being yanked by the collar. Imani watches the swooshing water, guessing the number of people who have swam in it and never come back. Maybe they disappear to the bottom of the ocean and go some better place.
Wordlessly, Bahati jumps to her feet and walks along the shore. Imani follows without question, examining the large claw and footprints her friend leaves in the sand. She secretly matches her own prints against them, marveling at how small hers are in comparison.
She passes another bot, and ponders what his story. Where does he come from? What does he know of his past? The two bots do not speak, just politely nod. The dullness in his expression tells her he has been recently updated. If he knew of the sounds, the flavors or the feelings he is missing, he would never want another update. She longs to have a bot to share her experience with, but the only other bot she knows personally is Tau. Bahati has instructed her not to tell him anything.
The capital sits miles southwest of the beach, seeming to part of the fading light. From this distance, it is hard to distinguish one building from another in the fading light of the moon. Imani pictures flying pods and airbuses in her mind, finally landing, their passengers escaping to their homes after a long day. They will be met at their doors by happy families.
“Come,” Bahati says, wrapping her hair into a bun while walking into the waves, body submerging to where her swimsuit begins.
The water is cold but inviting. Its coolness sends a shock through Imani, but she forces back shivers by focusing on the shimmer of the waves in the distance. Bahati dives, swallowed and spit up in the distance. She shoots out of the water and dives again repeatedly like a fish. The performance excites Imani, but she dares not follow. She can swim, but she knows the dangers out there.
Sinking into the water where she stands, Imani opens her eyes. The water stings momentarily, but her body adjusts. A fish swims past her, tickling her toes as it does. She wishes to see more, feel more, but she is limited. The body of a bot is not as formidable as a reptilian’s.
When she comes back up, her puffy hair is drenched and wilted. Its bounce has been washed out. She wades to the beach and sits in the sand to squeeze her hair dry. When it finally dries, it shrivels and tangles. She flinches when two hands grasp her shoulders. Being startled is new to Imani.
“That’s called reflexes,” says Bahati, giggling.
“Well, I can do without them. My hands are shaking,” says Imani, offering her upturned palms as proof.
“Look what you did to your hair. I’ll do it for you tomorrow.”
“Are you going to make it look like yours?”
Bahati shakes her head. “I think you’d like braids. They hurt, but they last a long time.”
Besides the two of them, the beach is empty now. The few who were here disappeared while the two were swimming. The last of the moon has vanished, replaced by pitch black. All Imani can see is Bahati’s thin pupils in glowing irises.
“How does it feel to be update-free?” Bahati asks.
“Everything is so intense, like how you just scared me. Food tastes so good. I like it all.”
“You say that only because you haven’t experienced pain.”
“Just the other day, I stubbed my toe on the corner of the bed. That’s the worst pain I’ve experienced.”
“If that is the worst pain you’ve ever experienced, then you don’t know pain. There are worse pains, like being burned or losing someone close to you.”
Bahati goes silent, and Imani considers that she has not given any real thought to how losing her mother may have hurt Bahati. Imani knows the pain must be tremendous, but she has no similar experiences to use as measurements. She tries and fails to simulate the hurt her friend is victim of. “Hurt” is simply a word to Imani, a suggestion of something she can not truly define.
Imani has no family. Before Bahati, she had no friend. She can not lose something she does not have. By all reason, nothing lasts forever, so either she will lose Bahati or Bahati will lose her. She can not envision a world where her friend is gone, so Imani looks upon a star and asks that she be taken before her friend.
A pang reaches a part of Imani she had not known before. It is deep, somewhere she instinctively knows she can not physically reach. It does not hurt, and it does not feel good. It is just there. This part of her has just awakened, but she feels it has always quietly existed to influence her actions.
“What are you thinking about?” Bahati asks, her eyes seeming to float on the night.
“Nothing. Everything. I don’t know. Do you ever think of leaving the capital and going to live somewhere else?” asks Imani. Her voice mixes with the rolling ocean.
“Sometimes. After finishing school, I think I might travel the galaxy.”
“Why can’t you go now?”
“Because I want to finish basic education. This upcoming school year will be my last. Can’t wait for it to start. Plus, I’ll be an adult, and Ekon wouldn’t be able to stop me from leaving.”
“You’ll be seventeen. That doesn’t seem like an adult,” Imani says.
“Well, it is.”
“Will you take me with you when you leave?” Imani asks, digging up sand and sprinkling it about herself.
“Why would you want to come with me and possibly get yourself defused?” Bahati says, laughing.
“I’m not worried about being defused when I’m with you. Everything will be fine.”
Imani hears Bahati take in a breath as if she is about to say something. She waits for Bahati’s thoughts, but nothing comes other than a stiffening of her body. Imani realizes she knows Bahati has something on her mind. She can feel Bahati’s hesitation. Feelings are contagious.
Placing a hand on Bahati’s, Imani squeezes softly and her friend returns the gesture. They let the ocean’s music play between their silence. Imani understands silence. She has stood in corners for hours with no one around to serve. She has closed her eyes and drifted into a blackness still as death. But she has never before experienced this silence, equal parts blankness and communication.
Bahati’s lips are chill as the night with traces of warmth as they land on Imani’s neck. She throws her head back, feeling her friend’s sharp teeth graze her throat. The teeth have not been filed recently. Imani’s pulse races the way it did when Bahati frightened her, but this is not the same. It is a more animal, more savage pulsing. It is a craving.
Before now, Imani has not known anyone else’s touch. The lightness of Bahati’s hands, the gentle scrape of her manicured claws along Imani’s body sends shivers through the bot. Their breathing is rapid but unforced, punctuated by unsuppressed moans. The world of blackness dotted by starlight freckles fades, until Imani knows nothing but herself, Bahati and the sand on which they lay.
Imani is no longer in control. Her body on autopilot. She drinks in Bahati lips, teasing them with her own. Bahati’s lips are addictive, so much so, Imani refuses to pull away from them. She spreads her lips, inviting the other girl’s partially split tongue to explore her mouth. The sensation of Bahati’s tongue on her own is unbearable.
Once again, she is amazed at the softness of the Bahati’s body. The scales have relaxed to the point of almost being skin. Imani caresses bare flesh, as her friend’s hand finds its way between Imani’s bathing suit and skin. Imani arches her back, gasping at the pressure against her skin and sudden penetration.
Imani is floating. Her will, her self-control has been lost. It belongs to Bahati, the one who has transformed her body into an instrument. There is music to Bahati’s movements, the way she starts and stops to a rhythm engrained in them both. They are one and one and two at the same time. Separate but together.
As their bodies peak and stutter to a shuddering stop, they lay unmoving on the damp sand. Imani counts the stars, the only witnesses to this moment. If only they knew the feeling, if they could trade places with her, the stars would live in this moment eternally. It takes half an hour for her heart to find its regular pace.
“How was that?” Bahati says, her voice velvet on the night.
“Exhilarating,” says Imani, panting.
“Do you understand what that was? The potential implications?”
Imani thinks for a moment. “Yes. I understand. I don’t want to think about the implications. I just want to enjoy this.”
Placing her head on her Bahati’s chest, Imani inhales the scent of her hair. It is a musky scent doused in a sweet fragrance. Imani believes she can identify Bahati just by her scent. It is something so unique, it is almost indistinguishable from her identity.
Imani does not have siblings, mother or father. The urge to find a past she does not have still burns but less vividly. None of that matters. She has many things other bots do not have. Emotions, senses and freewill. She has Bahati. This is all the family she needs.