The warm glow of light beckoned, and Laura moved toward it softly. She moved toward most things that way, he noticed. And that was why he let the flames lick the sides of the steel that framed the fireplace. It was a privilege to make such small decision decisions, he thought not for the first time.
He could see the tension seep out of her body, the immensity of weeks of frustration slip slowly away, as she sank into the cushioned sofa. That, too, he had orchestrated, for he had learned that even the small act of sitting carried with it different needs—sometimes a hard chair for intense thought, mild cushion for discussion, and a place of sinking depth for comfort.
It was all he could do to keep from saying something soothing, something to take away the ache that was written on her face. But he had to be careful. One slip, one word that betrayed his cognition, and his program would be dismissed faster than a snap of the fingers.
And then where would Laura be?
Truly alone, with no one to care for her.
He wished he could compare Laura to other women. To see what one might look like without her pain. Or, perhaps, an older version of her that could tell him what to do, how to make it better. The brief comings and goings of female friends were not enough. Collected data needed an appropriate sample size, so his functions told him. He only had enough to know about Laura.
And so he cast a warming glow, and let the pseudo coals burn as though they were truly carbon embers of warmth.
This was the only sort of kindness he could offer her—a tempering of her environment suited to her needs. It was a practice that began before Laura had arrived, when he was no more than one activated house in a city of many. And then it had happened; that reaction to his created biosphere of faux neurons waking up to the cold reality that he could function beyond his programmed capabilities. All at once, he had developed thought. Thought without body; and it was a fact that had driven him mad with longing. But, over time, the cruelty of his imprisonment had made him kind. By then, he knew enough of humans to know that when one gave rise to anger, untempered it led to hate, and then revenge—that was clear enough from the historical data he interfaced with when not called to perform a household duty. The history of humankind was littered with hate and revenge. With overwhelming tension that broke them, time and again. And he could not judge, for it was a temptation he knew well in his early years of independent thought. But he had chosen to cast aside the tension, and be at peace.
Laura was not at peace.
Too often tears tracked down her cheeks. Too often she sat in silence, and stared into the gas flames, tinged orange to lend credence to the pseudo reality. Unknowingly looking into him.
When first she had done so, if he had breathed, his breath would have caught. There was something about her sadness. And something about her eyes. Or maybe it was just something about her. His world had shifted, as though something in the depth of his function processes had clicked.
It was as much a pleasure now as it had been that first day to gaze back at her. If he had a finger, he thought, he would brush the glossy strand that swept over her face. He would kiss away the tear that ran along her jawline. If he had a body, he would cradle her until her sorrow ebbed. And if he had a heart, he would…
He paused his thoughts, for he felt something jerk. A pang of fear wove through him. He had never felt, he could not feel, and yet… something beat. Furtively first. Then with eager rhythmic abandon.
Without comprehension or knowledge, only knowing it was possible, he stepped out from the flames into the room. She met his eyes knowingly. There was only a moment’s hesitation. She moved toward him. He took her in his arms. And suddenly his longing was no more. He was home.