Love Code (Galactic Love #2) by Ann Aguirre

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Helix startled into consciousness with a jolt.

Which was a shock, because he had never lost awareness before. As an AI, he didn’t sleep, and his mechanical avatar didn’t tire. He stirred, and a flash of something for which he had no analogue screamed through him in a debilitating wave. The aftermath left him panting, and—

Panting?

Panting required respiration. As an inorganic being, he did not breathe.

Yet he had no visual input, so he began to test his systems—no, no, he did not. Nothing responded to that attempted internal reset. He couldn’t get diagnostics online; there was only darkness and that awful, howling sensation.

Query: What is happening? No data emerged, and an unfamiliar sensation swept over him, one that he could not name either.

“Calm down. I can tell you’re conscious by the spike in your vitals.”

That was Tiralan, a language included in the Coalition database. Helix had no recollection of how he’d ended up in his current situation, and some might argue that by duping Zylar and Beryl—the beings he’d previously assisted as an AI and friend—and pretending his memory had been compromised, he merited this unprecedented data loss. It wasn’t that he couldn’t retrieve the information, but he couldn’t even perceive the data clusters. No nodes, no orderly cerebral matrix–unnerving to have no sense of the contents of his own mind.

The quiet voice went on, “You must be quite confused. Open your eyes if you can.”

Eyes? Visual perception organs? That couldn’t be right, but when he focused, he managed to obey the instruction through some process previously unknown. Helix took in his surroundings first, a spacious room with scientific implements and a Tiralan attendant. This one was bronze with small scales covering the upper body. Now that he had encountered a human in the form of Beryl Bowman, he acknowledged the Tiralan were somewhat similar in physiology, though the Tiralan lacked fur and had head tendrils instead. Both species were bipedal and warm-blooded, breathing a similar oxygen-rich cocktail.

Belatedly, he realized he had no means by which to collect data about this unknown Tiralan who had apparently taken him hostage. He should be able to scan this being and know almost everything. He couldn’t. In fact, just looking around seemed to be the peak of his current abilities.

“Try speaking. Your current form creates sound differently than your prior incarnation. Initiate the words here.”

A touch, one he felt, not with sensors, but through…skin? “I… demand…an explanation.” Once he got the first syllable out, communication became easier, but it carried with it an unusual resonance, vibrations he could feel.

In fact, he became aware of other sensory input–subtleties he had never been able to detect before. The room swelled with a chemical tang. His mechanical avatar could have analyzed the precise ratio of the compounds, but he would not have been able to experience them. Not like this. Helix had no parameters to measure the input he was receiving, and instead of letting the rush overload his inexplicable senses, he closed his eyes, waiting for a response.

“I’m Qalu. And you are?”

“Helix.”

She went on, “This is my home and my workplace. Your ship crashed near here and your mech self was destroyed beyond repair. Fortunately, I noticed the uplink to your ship, and I saved you by copying your neural network to a new host.”

Silently, Helix considered the information imparted. There was a crash. I nearly perished. This Tiralan saved me.

“You…have my gratitude,” he managed to say.

“I’m pleased I could assist. Unlike many worlds, Tiralan has no proscriptions against artificial intelligence. In fact, that’s the crux of my work, and why I had a biosynthetic form awaiting imprint when your vessel plummeted.”

He listened to this explanation with partial attention while frantically searching his unresponsive neural network. Helix could not recall anything after his departure from Barath. He had intended to build a new existence, starting on Gravas Station, but he had no idea whether he’d ever gotten there. In fact, he could not be certain how much time had passed since he parted from Zylar and Beryl.

“What is the date?” he asked.

Qalu supplied the answer.

Six spans had passed, not a full cycle at least, and he had no idea what he had been doing for that time. Suddenly, her words registered fully. Biosynthetic?

“Does that mean I am made of meat?”