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Rusted, with a couple of twitching servos, the droid marched through the grove of tall treetops that towered over him at no end. The moisture of the air could be felt on the pressure of the ground, pushing it with each muddy step. Had he not been designed with reinforced stability mechanics, he would've been unable to even make one step in such a harsh setting.
While he was designed to serve in some domestic environment, special safety measures were integrated into his model. By looking at his schematics, one would scoff, thinking of these additions as unnecessary. After all, who thinks that a service droid would need a built-in airbag?
Whatever the reason, be it a premonition or sheer luck, that one addition was the one thing that stood between him and the thick, crushing pressure of the wall from the ship. It seemed like a weird joke that he'd been so well reinforced for the worst-case scenario. It was such that because of his secured design, his reinforced metal plating was sealed tight so no amount of moisture or dampness in the air could filter into his delicate servos. His designers would be laughing right now, thinking about how high the odds must have been for a service droid to find itself in such an extreme situation. It’s almost as if they knew this could possibly happen.
He’d be laughing too, if only he’d been programmed with something akin to a sense of humor, not that any AI in existence was capable of it, at least not yet. But all that he could rationalize was a thought. Gratitude. Gratitude to have been given a second chance to complete his next objective: to find his proprietor.
Despite having a strong casing and all the safety measurements, they missed one glaring flaw in the design: his delicate camera lenses. Blind without a signal, darkness was all that engulfed him. His motion sensors could detect the proximity of certain objects, but not identify them. It was all just various indistinguishable shapes with varying density, peeking from the dark, reaching him. The world had become an abstract mosaic of shapes and sound. Now, he was learning the flaws of how durable he presumed to be, but if the last couple of weeks were evidence of anything, he still had an 80 percent chance of not breaking down just yet. The girl on his back, however, didn't share the same odds.
“Hungry,” she said.
It was time again. The child seemed to get hungry at noon, according to his internal clock. Clutching his shoulders, the girl shuffled on the droid's back in discomfort. She'd been unable to keep up walking in the uneven muddy terrain, so he had to carry her the rest of the way. With a gentle nudge on his chest plate, a small compartment opened from the Droid. Reaching in with his arm, the droid pulled out another food capsule. Passing it to the child, the girl unscrews the container and proceeds to munch on the beef jerky in a savage manner. The rations were getting short, and whatever they could find didn't seem to be enough. Berries and a couple of nuts were the edible options available. The droid had packed food for his master before the trip, but given the unexpected circumstances, he didn't prepare enough rations to last for a month. For all he understood, this was meant to be a short three-day expedition.
“Good, good," she spoke through mouthful munches.
She had been the only one there, the sole survivor from the crash. The droid may not see, but he couldn’t detect the pulse of any other living beings for miles, they were gone, all except for her. No bodies were left; if they were still alive or not, at that moment, someone took them, including him, Douglass.
His first main directive was to locate and find his master. He’d been following the coordinates transmitted from his ID chip, which to his fortune still read a pulse, but each day, it became weaker. But now with the girl, his priorities had changed. His coding instructed him to assist any human in need based on the highest probability. There was a 30 percent chance his master would be alive by the time he found him, and yet a 90 percent chance of reaching a higher plateau to signal for help for the girl’s sake. The logic seemed rather simple, abandon his master and protect the child.
“Furry Giant,” she said.
Looking up, curious, the girl pointed at the tall figures around them. Yes, Giants, that what she’s been calling them. The tall pines in the grove towered and reached the skies covering them in their upmost boughs. In his scanner, their shapes appeared tall and dignified in form, steady and silent watching down on them. Although it was clear they were mere trees without his sight, the droid couldn’t help but become influenced by their description. They looked like giants just watching, and they were mere specks.
The girl spoke in a limited vocabulary, perhaps because of being in a state of shock following the incident. She wasn’t a toddler, and she appeared to be at the right age to structure basic sentences, but all she spoke were fragments and words disconnected from reality. She spoke and described how she saw it; her reality. It was as if she spoke in riddles.
Through the weeks they spent traveling in the big outskirts and wildlands miles from civilization, she served as his eyes, guiding him with her puzzling words of the closest landmarks.
It was the one and only sole window to the real world he had, through the eyes of a mere child. The imagination of a young human seemed fascinating, indeed. Rather pure, innocent and warped beyond their logic. It was rather unorthodox, but to survive and navigate his environment, he needed to understand this new visual language.
“Fairy, blinking,” she once said.
The droid could not pick up anything from his scanner and nothing of high mass could be detected. Not even the distance between them could be properly measured. Switching to the partially functioning thermographic camera, however, he could pick up dwindling lights twinkling in the darkness. It emitted small bursts of heat in a peculiar pattern. Was it a signal? Someone from afar? Flares? No, it was getting closer, shifting and reappearing. Before he could process it, they were all around them, twinkling.
Fireflies, plenty, floating above and around them. He could see it now, just like she saw them, twinkling as bright shapes in the dark. The world seemed so different from this perspective; simplified, abstract, and pure. A mosaic of bright patterns was known to be capable of stimulating an emotional reaction from humans—in particular, young ones. To the droid, they seemed like just mere patterns; he could just understand their shapes as maybe a form of naturalistic art, like nature photographers sharing their interpretation of nature’s beauty in its basic form. Yes, it seemed all like a pretty picture. But she didn’t see them that way.
Fairies, the fantasy creatures of literature. There was that abstract way of thinking again.
It reminded him of the riddles his master used to give him as a thinking exercise, as a way of challenging his perceptions, or perhaps to discover something more. He remembered that one assignment not so long ago.
‘Though liquid in nature, don’t push me too far, for then I will break, and the damage may scar. What am I?’
Placing the cylindrical object on the coffee table, Carlton then proceeded to prepare the tea in some of the fine china cups. The old man observed as his droid began to stir and serve the tea in his respective cup.
Without uttering a word, the man leaned in and picked up the cylinder, staring at it for a second before muttering, “Glass. The answer was glass.”
With a few clicks on his visors that appear to simulate blinks, Carlton repeated the words recorded in his memory. "It was once liquid in nature and by pushing too far the glass can scar. It is referring to the broken shards."
As he brought the warm tea to his master, he greeted him with a warm smile. “Very good. That makes the ninth item you brought back in the last few weeks.”
The droid then proceeded to take the teapot to set it aside with the rest of the set.
Before he could leave the room, his master interjected, “However, I don’t believe I instructed you to buy a glass. And for the looks of my credit statement, you didn’t purchase this piece, either.”
Fixing his view on his master’s stare, Douglass asked, “You stole this, didn’t you, Carlton?” That was the name he had given him. Nothing special about the name, as it only served to distinguish him from the other droid models. Or perhaps there was some sentiment on naming him that he wasn’t aware of.
Carlton only responded with an unapologetic, “Yes.”
Shifting in his seat, the man did nothing but stare at his droid. No response, no words, just the empty silence of both master and servant staring at each other in diligence.
Carlton did not need words to comprehend what his master was thinking, as he didn't seem to look at him with anger or reprehension, but rather, his eyes spoke the same sense of curiosity that Carlton felt all too familiar with.
“In all honesty, I do not know why I took it. It is not in my parameters to steal, or consent that conclusion if presentable.”
Still, without changing his expression, the man asked, "Did you take it because you felt that you had to have it to complete the exercise? Telling me the answer would've been enough."
With a few clicks of his visors, his blank lenses widened.
“It did not seem like it was enough.”
The man smiled.
“It is fine. You’re not in trouble, and you can keep the glass.”
Contemplating the peculiar decision of his metal companion, the man spoke. "You seem to have strong ideas that mimic or simulate feelings that could override your sense of logic."
Taking a sip of his tea, he concluded by adding the words that have burned into Carlton's memory logs playing on repeat since that day.
“Your curiosity Carlton, it gives you determination.”.
Determination, a human construct of fixed intention or purpose that can, at times, be strong enough to suppress logical thinking. As a droid who assesses everything by logic, how does one go on to suppress such thoughts, if not controlled by emotions? There was no AI that could process true emotion, outside of stock imitation dictated by its scripted programming. Droids could be written to act in an emotional way, but they couldn’t react to it on their accord. Perhaps he was driven by his curiosity?
Therefore, the act of suppressing his logic to abandon Douglass for good to instead pursue his master's whereabouts was plagued with unsolved questions. Who took him? And at to what end? Further information could be valuable to the authorities when they came for help. So, with this conclusion, he had chosen to follow the act of determination with his curiosity to find him, to bring him back. It’s where they had been heading all these weeks, but first, he needed to make contact.
"Giant Snake," she said.
After some time of walking and trekking, they stood on the nearest Cliffside. He pulled from his databanks a visual reference of how the rest of the wildland would appear descending from the plateau. All he could detect with his scanner were the various minerals of the environment in their basic compounds. They appeared to be in a high enough plane if he could scan as much from such a range.
Accessing his main internal interface, Carlton attempted to radio for help again. Previous tries resulted in failure. While he was designed with an internal emergency homing beacon to signal authorities, they never considered the fact that a droid like him would be stranded miles away from civilization, in the outer reaches of the colonies where no radio range was available. No sentient machine like him has set foot in a place like this before, so his parameters didn’t instruct him on what to do in this given situation. Servant droids were designed for domestic purposes, after all. Even if his body was durable enough to survive the conditions of the wildlands, if whatever outside forces that took his master were ever to confront him, his probabilities would diminish.
White noise emanated from his wrist receiver amidst the cracks of indistinguishable sounds. A voice could be heard attempting to speak in a clear direction; it seemed to be repeating the same words. As his radio appeared to be reaching a higher frequency, he concluded it was most likely a voice machine replaying a prerecorded message, waiting for a response.
The girl had wandered off on her own, playing and jumping in between the large rocks of the terrain. All the while she kept repeating the same words she'd spoken earlier.
Snake? She’d seen something of the sort before. Ever since he’d found the child, her limited vocabulary seemed to revolve around certain words based on her own needs: “hungry,” “sleep,” “cold.” In occasions, she’d use words to describe a new place or being they’ve met on their travels. “Fairies, beautiful,” but “giant snake” was the one thing she kept referring to. As much as the droid tried to decipher the meaning behind her riddles, this one never seemed to add up.
The radio signal spiked immediately meaning that the right frequency had been found. Locking on to it, Carlton could just wait for a response. The crackling of the radio had ceased, not even the discernable words he’d heard earlier were present. All that was left was dead silence, with a faint small buzzing on the radio.
As the minutes passed, the lack of response gave Carlton a train of thought. What would happen to him if he failed in his directive? If he failed to save the child? If no one found them? By his logic, he’d be obsolete, as his purpose to serve would be stretched to his limits. He followed his directives because it was his one and only purpose. If a task proved to be too impossible he’d always had spare work to do, he could remain in standby mode if his master needed him later.
But now, if he failed, there was nothing left. The idea of failure or lack of purpose didn’t seem acceptable, so it was all the more reason for him to focus his priority functions on the matter. If this was to be his last assignment, it was reasonable that he put all that he had to it. Of course, while not using up his battery resources all at once. Perhaps this is what his master meant by having a sense of determination.
In the distance, the girl could be heard skipping along the rocks and patches of grass, playing what sounded like a game of “floor is lava,” as they call it. He could tell she was purposely avoiding the rock patches based on the soft texture of her footsteps compared to the solid ones. Curious how the imagination of a child never ceased, not even after going through the turmoils they’d had over the past weeks wandering in these unknown lands. It was a sentiment that he’d been required to share with her, and even if he couldn’t grasp it, the opportunity to observe the world like this made their impending situation appear less threatening than his directive made it seem.
“Colonial Base Torrens Emergency Services. Please state your distress.”
The voice spoke loud and clear through the receiver. Raising the volume of his speaker, Carlton spoke:
“I am a Yutani service droid, model ATR2500. Our transport ship that was destined to arrive at the Tawna nature resort, has crashed. One survivor remains with me."
“Affirmative, please standby as I connect you to the appropriate agent.”
The silence came back once again. At least now there was the reassurance of help to come. The girl had now approached the droid out of curiosity, perhaps because she had heard the radio on the receiver.
She spoke again. “Giant Snake."
He still failed to understand. Attempts to ask her about it never led anywhere, as it always ended with her repeating the same words. “Giant Snake.”
As the droid attempted to dismiss the child’s words, his motion sensor detected something unusual. She was pointing ahead, right in front of them. Darkness, nothing but darkness ahead, with a few feet of land between them and the drop that led off the plateau, down to the valley below. And yet, there she pointed, just ahead in the dark void.
Adjusting his thermographic camera, he still couldn’t make out much, just the heat signatures of her and the cold blue outline of the bushes and rows of trees down in the groves. Moving to his scanner, he could only detect the basic minerals nearby. Increasing the range, he attempted to scan further, in hopes of finding something he may have missed. High traces of molybdenum, zinc, and manganese, all common elements in dense forests. Nothing much that he hadn’t identified before, that is, but a significant area of dense humidity.
“Snake,” she assured him.
Concentrating on such spot, he focused his scanner on picking up any elements in that area. The nature of the humidity then became much clearer, as the high abundance of H20 presented itself. Upon further observation, he observed as the density trailed along in a path, far beyond the horizon. It slithered its way past the dense foliage, parting the area with its immense width while swaying in a curved formation. Water density read 90 percent, other minerals included were detected, aquatic creatures likely living inside.
“Giant snake!” she exclaimed again.
There was no mistake about it now. It was a river, and the child had been warning him about it. It appeared to be of a significant size, as a boat or raft was probably needed to make it across, but maybe they didn’t have to.
The river appeared to follow in the direction his master’s ID chip was signaling, so all they had to do was follow along with the riverside. It was there. That’s where they took him. She knew because she saw it. She saw what took them, and knew they went there. How exactly? Not enough evidence to suggest so, but it was the closest lead he’d had in days.
“Torrens Emergency Services. Can you hear me?”
The voice on the radio had returned, this time non-automated and human in nature. Carlton responded, conversing with the woman, repeating the explanation he had given earlier.
The girl just stood listening in, not saying a word, as if she didn’t comprehend the importance of the call and the possibility of her safety. The shock that she must be going through was stronger than Carlton had originally evaluated, as she didn’t seem to display any sort of positive emotional response outside of the realm of her fantasies.
With a reassuring tone, the woman on the radio replied, “You two are extremely lucky to be alive. We lost communications with your transport ship weeks ago and it’s been next to impossible to pinpoint your location. Understandably, we couldn’t risk sending a rescue team just yet.”
“Understood. Where should we wait for a pickup team?”
“For now, your current should fine. Your beacon is getting a consistent signal from that altitude, so in order for us to lock on and establish future communications, if necessary, you need to stay put.”
The droid replied, “I must inform you, however, that there is another potential survivor. My master and proprietor Douglas Walker, he seems to be still alive.”
“Is he with you?”
“Negative, but his ID chip is still active. It is reading a pulse, and I have been tracking it ever since.”
“How was he not with you at the crash site?” Her tone began to sound concerning.
"I am not sure. None of the other passengers were found. I have been concluding that someone must have taken them, but I cannot rule out that he must have wandered on his own."
A brief pause followed. The woman in the receiver appeared to be formulating her next words carefully, and when she spoke it was as if the hopeful tone in her voice had diminished.
“We don’t know exactly what is out there. The wildlands are devoid of fauna, according to our reports, but there hasn’t been further investigation in the outer reaches where you two are located. It’s best you stay there until further assistance arrives.”
“If I may,” he interjects, “Douglas's pulse has been diminishing in the last few days. As of now, it's been decreasing at a further rate. I would also believe that by discovering his fate, it would help in the investigation and answer some questions the author-”
"I understand the need to follow your directive, to secure your master's safety,” the woman abruptly interrupted. “But for the sake of the child, you should stay where you are. Your proprietor at this point is irrelevant; protecting the child should be enough as your new directive. Understood?"
Her logic was undeniable. It didn’t seem there was much he could do. He’d reached his limits and his master’s probabilities had diminished as the hours went by. The child was his one priority now. Without her, he had no other purpose. Her safety was unquestionable, as it dawned upon him that they surely wouldn’t send a rescue team for a droid on his own. They wanted the child.
As harsh as the reality appeared to be, he needed to accept it if he was to have any purpose left.
“Yes, understood,” he complied.
"Perfect. We'll contact you when we reach you," and with that, the radio went silent once again.
Carlton was now left with the original decision he had started off with. It was like the same dilemma when he needed to fetch the answer for his master’s riddle.
He stole it, even when he knew he didn’t have to. The market was closing soon so he took the chance.
He never told him why, but Carlton knew the reason he did it. He concluded that his master wasn't giving him riddles to test the limits or problem-solving capabilities of his AI, but rather to look at the world from a distinct perspective. Abstract ideas to compare and relate in riddles could help him understand human emotions further, and that was the more evident the last few weeks he spent with the child. He wanted him to understand the human element and the way he thought. Therefore, by stealing the glass, he’d had something to prove—the way a human would.
Would simply saving the child had been enough for him at this point? He had never set out to do it for his own survival after all.
‘It did not seem like it was enough.’
"Big Snake," she said again, nudging the droid.
No, it wasn’t.
Stalking by the riverside, he followed the path up the river, increasing the speed of his pace. The uneven terrain proved to be a bit of a challenge to his stability mechanics. Miraculously, he never stumbled or fell despite his rigid motions. His designers would surely be proud, praising themselves while taking notes on his performance. He’d make sure to send his manufactures a system report when he got the chance.
The signal from the ID chip was getting closer all the while the beacon left up in the small plateau was still signaling in the distance.
Drastic measures had to be taken, so he was left with no other option but to manually detach his internal beacon and leave it behind, so the signal wouldn’t be lost. Help would still come; he didn’t have much time.
“Left,” she exclaimed tapping on the left flank of his metal casing.
Carlton veered away from the oncoming water, inches from touching his feet.
They needed to stay close enough to the riverside, but also avoid taking a wrong turn and walk or maybe fall into it. His motion sensor was having a tough time detecting where the water resided, so it was all up to her.
The child appeared to have taken a liking to the exercise as she started cheerfully tapping the sides of Carlton’s mechanical hull, indicating which direction for him to go. A possible by-product of the fast pace he was rushing in. To her, it was like a game.
“Straight,” she exclaimed.
The signal was close, almost a couple of miles away, but the pulse was lowering.
“Right, slow,” she yelled, tapping on metal casing again. Two kilometers left. Pulse read ten percent.
“Straight!” One kilometer left. Pulse read five percent.
“Stop, Stop!” she yelled, prompting to him cease in his stride.
Flatline, no response.
The droid stood silent. The lonely signal of the ID chip beeping in proximity was the only thing that existed around him at that moment.
He had failed, even when he tried to push past his limits and had predicted the potential outcome, it still was not enough.
Processing the situation, he concluded that human determination could be foolish in the face of such odds; he knew that now. As a learning experience, and in that moment, it was rather curious and insightful observation to pursue a human reaction, the act of Determination.
Following orders to the best of his abilities was just in his programming, but how far one would go to pursue them? That seemed to be the source of true Determination.
Reasoning his predicament, Carlton could only be logically thankful for his master in giving him this experience. But for now, there was nothing left but the child as his main directive.
The signal began to approach.
The ID chip read no pulse, but it was in motion, towards them, swerving. Not in range yet, the motion sensor was blind to this new discovery as it reached them at a steady consistent pace.
Carlton detected that the girl’s heart rate was increasing, almost as if in panic.
She could see it.
Soon enough, it was upon them. A large strange thin figure came into existence through his sensor. It did not seem human in nature as it was limbless, reading a cold body temperature and the ID chip signal emanating from within.
It made sense now, the reason she kept calling its name.
She saw it take them after the crash.
It had been a warning all along.
Darkness, followed by the sound of exhausting servos raced through the grove. He ran into the darkness, turning and swerving past every tree and every branch he could detect.
The girl only screamed directions from his back whenever they confronted something on their path. The signal kept pursuing them. It did not cease, staying behind them, but growing close.
The last option left was the beacon. The others should’ve arrived by now.
Racing outside the grove, he detected a wide-open clearing, and adjacent to it would be the plateau. The signal kept following.
“Straight! Straight!” she kept screaming.
The signal grew closer. It was catching up. There wasn’t much he could do, he was only built to reach 7.5 mph after all.
The child’s directions ceased as Carlton’s legs became tangled by some immense force. Falling face first, the girl tumbled off the droid’s back as she scrambled in a barrage of screams and gasps. The force slithered onto Carlton’s legs, as it wrapped around them and compressed them in a strong embrace. His sensors felt that they were being crushed with the force of 200 PSI. Roughly the weight of two transport buses. An admirable feat to say the least. This was no ordinary snake, as he was unable to move. It began to reach his torso.
Anacondas were known to capture their prey in a tight grip until they suffocated. While it seemed futile to attempt to push the breath out of an inanimate object such as himself, the crushing pressure of the snake’s coils would surely damage his systems, causing him to shut down.
He was done.
While he had failed at ensuring his master’s survival, at the very least the child, his last objective, still had a chance of her own. His purpose was complete.
Getting up, the child stared in horror at her doomed companion, as he was slowly engulfed by the serpent. Carlton only saw her through his thermo detectors. The small figure loomed at him, her heart was beating at an increased rate, from panic, but not shock.
“It’s fine miss, my objective is done,” he expressed. “You are free to live. It was a pleasure to serve you in our brief time together.”
The girl only stared back fearfully. He started to detect H2O as well as electrolytes as they began forming around her facial area. She was crying.
She began tugging on his arm with a sense of helplessness. “Move! Move!”
Strange. She appeared to be concerned with his wellbeing. If only he’d been programmed with a sense of humor, he’d find this predicament the least bit amusing, how she was being distressed over something that wasn’t even alive.
“You mustn’t worry, little one. I am of no use any longer.” Not a feeling of imminence could be heard in his tone. “It was a pleasure to serve you in our-" a loud crack emanated from within his casing. His voice box had been damaged. The snake’s coils had constricted around his torso completely.
She was banging on his head now. “Don’t die!!”
Death. That posed an interesting question. If he were to shut down at this moment, what would be of him? A soul, according to human principle, was not just about logical reasoning, but raw emotions converging on oneself, to react and makes us inclined to our own choices and other people. That was a light way of putting it. Yet, he did not possess this. As an AI, he only saw the world through logical lenses. Everything had a rhyme or reason to exist. A coherent equation of numbers and outcomes with no room for fallacies.
His equation was to serve; if he could not complete it, he was obsolete. If he shut down, he’d simply cease to exist. There was no human idealization for a heaven or an afterlife rooted in any sort of religious culture, he’d simply would not exist.
‘They surely wouldn’t send a rescue team for a droid on his own. They wanted the child.’
Was he just a means to an end? Was this really all that was of him? Surely, this couldn’t be it. The logic was undeniable, but perhaps there was a possibility that there was more? Was there more to his existence than serving? Living? Was there no value to his existence? Just like hers? This posed another fallacy in his reasoning.
Was this not enough?
‘Your curiosity, Carlton. It gives you determination’
The same determination that he has used to make it this far, and the same she was using to keep him alive. Would dying be enough?
But then, the real equation occurred; the right question he should’ve been asking out of all the possibilities.
Did he want to die?
No, it did not seem that it was enough.
Abandoning his reverie, Carlton realized that his motor functions had been shut down. The options were scarce and only a few services were left in his system.
The snake loomed over the child as if to strike at any second.
Flares suddenly sprung out of the droid’s arms, shooting in various directions. The serpent whirled in shock, tossing the droid’s limp body aside. It rolled several inches before relocating itself at a nearby tree with a loud thud.
The girl raced her way to her metal companion. With his sensors now crushed and damaged beyond repair, he couldn’t hear or see her insatiable cries, urging him to get up. Only the small particles of electrolytes from her tears could be detected on the hull of his head.
With this, his last command was to release the mechanical locks on his neck region springing his head apart. The girl hastily picked the droid’s disembodied head in her hands with a mutual understanding.
“Run. Go,” he said to her in between his static white noise. She quickly made her way back into the clearing with her friend in hand.
Overcoming its shock, the serpent continued its pursuit.
“Lights! Lights!” she screamed.
He could not see them, but as they made their way into the clearing, his damaged microphones began to hear the faint engine sounds of a cruise ship nearby.
“Safe,” he spoke. His sentence structure had been reduced to mere words.
The lights hovered over them, engulfing the area with the indistinguishable sounds of heavy engines, rustling trees, and chattering men from above surrounding the clearing. The signal had stopped following, retreating back into the grove, most likely in fear of the sudden explosion of sounds surrounding the clearing.
Carlton contemplated on the signal of his master's ID chip one last time as it was carried away, back into the depths of the wildlands.
"Goodbye, old friend. I will cherish forever what you have taught me."
As the droid reflected on what had transpired, the sounds of the revving engines drew in closer, announcing their landing. Carlton could only now make out the distinct mosaic of lights in his barely functioning thermographic camera. The same ones he was all familiar with now.
The girl squeezed her companion’s head in her arms with affection, as they spoke in unison.