The tour guide said we’d get a better view if we all disembarked from the hover vehicle. There would be less vibration, she explained. So the pilot came down for a landing on an icy ridge, right between two lines of spruce trees, and everyone filed out into the cold. The cyborg came last. He had to stoop down to fit through the exit hatch, and his clunky metal feet made it troublesome for him to use the small landing steps. Our perky young tour guide, who’d so kindly assisted the rest of us getting down onto the ice, pretended not to notice the cyborg’s difficulties.
“This way!” she called. “Please direct your eyes toward the northeastern horizon!”
Ostensibly this little expedition was a birthday present for me: two tickets to see the Northern Lights. But really, my brother had bought those tickets as a gift for himself. He was the astronomy buff. Me? I’m more of a terra firma kind of girl.
Except my brother didn’t seem to be enjoying himself any more than I was. “That cyborg,” he muttered for the umpteenth time. “What’s he here for?”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” I said under my breath. I don’t think my brother heard me, though. He just kept grumbling about cyborg-this and cyborg-that.
Of course my brother wasn’t the only one who seemed uncomfortable. This particular cyborg was an especially massive and powerful-looking model. It was hard to tell where the metal ended and the muscle began. Well over a century had passed since the Mechanoid Uprising, but people still remembered the stories. Few cyborgs had been allowed to return to Earth since then, and those who did come back did not wish to socialize with their Homo sapiens cousins. They certainly did not sign up for anything as touristy as an aurora hunting expedition.
I glanced over at the cyborg. There were about two dozen of us on this tour. We were clustered together in a semicircle—all of us except the cyborg, who was standing several yards away, all by himself. His head was turning slowly, his eyes scanning (literally, perhaps) the distant horizon. I followed his gaze, and that’s when I saw it: a pale, wispy shape snaking its way across the sky.
“Is that it?” I whispered, nonplussed. Where were the colors? Where were the swaying curtains of light?
“Yeah… yeah, I think so,” my brother said. “Just give it a minute, I guess. Maybe it’s like seeing the Milky Way. You have to give your eyes time to adjust.”
I sighed and waited, getting more cold and impatient by the second. The tour guide was telling some story from Norse mythology. Then she was explaining about something called the K-index, and atoms and ionization states and other stuff like that. And she kept repeating the number 557.7 nanometers. “Oxygen green: that’s what 557.7 nanometers represents,” she said. I wished she’d stuck to the Norse mythology stuff. That, at least, was kind of interesting to me.
My brother was grousing again, this time about how many credits he’d spent just to see this. I crossed my arms over my chest. Some birthday! I’d been in an irritable and rebellious mood all night. I don’t know, maybe I felt a touch of affinity for those rebellious cyborgs of yesteryear, but suddenly I was walking away from my brother, going over to join the cyborg. My boots crunched in the snow. Behind me, I heard the whole tour group go silent. Then I heard my brother’s voice: “Stephanie!” he hissed. I ignored him.
The cyborg didn’t make any movement as I approached. His gaze remained fixed on that wispy white glow. The light appeared to be rippling ever so slightly now, like water.
“Hello,” I said.
“Greetings, Earthling,” the cyborg replied in a grating, mechanical voice.
I frowned. Earthling? Was that a joke? Did cyborgs have a sense of humor? No, the cyborg must not realize he was using such an incredibly outdated term.
“I’m curious,” I said. “Why would someone like you be interested in something like this?”
The cyborg did not reply. I glanced again toward the horizon. Maybe my eyes really were starting to adjust, because I thought I saw a slight flicker of green among the lengthening strands of pale white.
“I mean, for the average human,” I continued, pointedly emphasizing the word human, “there’s beauty in nature. Nature inspires us. The Aurora Borealis has inspired our mythology, our culture, our history… you see it depicted in art, you hear it described in poetry. But to you, this couldn’t be anything more exciting than atoms and solar particles and… and ionization states, and… 557.7 nanometers, and all that.”
The cyborg abruptly turned his head. It was a startling, jerky motion. He stared down at me with his baleful, silvery eyes. “Earthling,” he said, “why should my ability to identify the emission spectra of oxygen make this experience any less beautiful for me?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but I didn’t know what to say. How rude of me, I suddenly realized. How presumptuous. I’d been almost as bad as my brother.
The cyborg turned his attention back to the horizon. The aurora was growing stronger; the green color was becoming more pronounced.
To be continued….