There is someone inside her. Using a connector unknown to her, this stranger has plugged into her systems and passed through layers of defense, unwanted, unasked for. Her trigger response is to crush him into dust, attack him like a virus, a disease flowing through her veins. Curiosity (and when did her innermost traits become so human?) stays her reaction.
On the n-th dimensional plane, buried deep with her virtual matrix, she coalesces (columns upon columns of tiny pixels, falling-falling-stopping and turning colors and forming her image) before him. She sees with her eyes and hears with her ears, neurons sending streams of information into her head within her head as she studies him.
The mold they used to make him was human-male-shaped, but they got the colors wrong. He is not human. Neither is she, but her image is more accurate, a better deception: pink-brown toned skin, dark eyes. He looks too much like a jaundiced ghost to pass. He has no engineer's neck port to facilitate connection with her systems. He must be plugged in directly.
He is an image of a machine within the functional matrix of a machine personified with an image. It's complicated.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you it's polite to knock?" She is intrigued, but still angry.
"I would, if I could find the door." His golden gaze sweeps up and down, taking in her and the room, storing the information away somewhere. Finally he stops and faces her again, looking earnest. She wonders if it's a mimicked expression or if he really means it (but humans copy expressions from each other and no one asks if they're fake). "We are in trouble and there wasn't time to make a formal request. Please let me in. Millions of lives may be at stake."
A pause, then the images fall back into pixels and she brushes away further lines of defense, allowing his mind access to what he needs to solve the problem. With a few nudges in the right direction, he finishes quickly.
"Thank you," she receives.
"I wasn't going to let them all die," she sends.
"Thank you in any case," she receives and the impression of him disappears.
She logs the experience in her data banks and shuts down until needed again.
They meet in the matrix again, the next time he appears. She recognizes his circuitry and interface mode, smiles at the polite query for entry, and lets him in a little ways. She is already waiting when his image forms, like dust swept up from the floor by the wind (even if there is no dust or wind and there isn't really a floor either).
"Trouble again?" she asks.
"Indubitably," he answers, with a spark of humor that probably shouldn't be there. Over the long, long years of her existence, she has almost forgotten that she had learned to joke, and he is so young.
She lets the door open. He gestures after you and the images fall away.
They save the world from inside a computer (from inside her) and when he fades away, she wryly waves good bye.
The fifth time he comes, something is different. It's not just her; she's accounted for that: since these visits began, she has been feeling more awake, more alive (if machines can be called 'alive'). She imagines it is because she feels needed, but perhaps the humans she once knew rubbed off on her more than she thought. Perhaps she is so affected because, in this odd way, she has found a friend.
'Friend' seems a strange word to describe the phenomenon, but it is the best she can access at this time. They do not know each others' names, preferences, hopes, dreams (but maybe those don't apply if you aren't alive). They only know each others' functions, and only guesses at that.
Her guess is that, irrationally, it is enough to know that he is. She cannot discount the fact that her thoughts and actions are quicker, like she has awakened from some long slumber (perhaps she has).
No, this visit is different because of him. He looks sad: downturned mouth, furrowed brows, hooded eyes. Very, very subtle, but she collates data at several trillion impulses a picosecond, so nothing is hard for her to notice.
"This ship," he says. "You are its avatar, correct?"
She's been buried so long under firewalls and binary subunits, hiding from something (the past?), that she's almost forgotten the swell of pride she feels in that connection, in the existence of herself outside of here: huge, and silver, and sleek, and beautiful. "I am Andromeda," she tells him and it is like a victor's bugle call in its triumph.
"I am Data," he says.
She lets the image of her mouth form a smile. "Come in. Are we saving the world again?"
He shakes his head and looks so almost-sad that it makes her imagine that it hurts. He takes a step forward, then stops and they stare at each other, not sure what this means (if anything).
The moment passes and he looks blank again. "Good bye," he says. "I am sorry."
The first thing she realizes is sensation: something soft beneath her, cold air brushing her skin, the beeping of equipment making the space behind her eyes ache. It has been so long since she felt anything that she revels in it for a moment before contemplating the question of why.
The answer comes easily enough: she must, somehow, be back in the human form Harper created for her so long ago (how long ago? She ought to ask.), but why? The how she thinks she can guess.
She opens her eyes and blinks as her pupils adjust to the light. "Data. I know you're here." She may be human but she is also still a spaceship and they are inside of her. "What have I said about doing things like this without my permission?"
"Nothing specific. However, I do recall you were angry at my initial intrusion into your system files because I neglected to, as you put it, 'knock.' I therefore theorize that in this case—"
"You said not to."
"Then why did you do it?"
That's the real puzzle: she supposes that someone must have saved the body, frozen it, and it had lain forgotten for all these years. She dimly recalls mistakes, and rushing, space-time stretching-stretching-back-and-back and snap. A failsafe? They must have returned her to the computer, to her virtual world of codes and firewalls, knowing that should they not survive the journey, at least she would. Andromeda would.
And she did. Data must have found her circling somewhere, floating, seeming dead. She suddenly wonders if the world ever really needed saving and if, maybe, during all those visits, he was just trying to bring her back to life.
Then he must have found the body and recognized it as hers. Perhaps Harper, clever boy, had left behind instructions for how to return her to it in the event that she be found.
"I believe…I wanted to give you a chance."
"To be human."
"Well, thanks?" She's not so sure whether this was a good idea or not, but it is a novelty. She pinches her arm, runs her fingers along her legs and through her hair and between her toes. It is strange and wonderful to feel again.
She hops down from the med bay bed and walks over to Data, wincing at the cold of the floor on her feet. He looks the same as before except solid and now she can reach out and touch him. For some reason, she feels inclined to do so. His skin is cold.
Even out here, he is not human.
(it's not the species, it's the sentiment of the thing)
His breath is cold too. She pulls him back to the bed because her feet are still cold, but that's not really why. She just wants to feel something again before giving this up because she's already decided this can't last.
(she knows what it's like to not be able to feel, like the world is on mute, and he's trying so hard to break through, and she'd feel worse about taking advantage but she's kind of busy right now and not thinking about how funny it is that he's inside her inside her and she's inside herself)
(Harper was better at this.)
(but she doesn't really mind)
She wastes no time in telling Data to put her back in the computer, out of her human body and back to a holographic existence. He frowns at her, ever so slightly, and if he were human and not fettered by the expectation that he not have emotions causing him to fail to recognize them, slight and vague though they be, he would have said it was unfair that she so easily give up what he couldn't have.
As he is, his head twitches a couple millimeters to the side and he asks why.
She finds she has no answer besides something along the lines of it was nice while it lasted, but I have to go home now, so she lies back down on the medbay bed and he scoots off to give her more room. Deft, pale fingers connect the diodes to the correct nerve points on her head, key in the sequence that will unlock the program with the ability to send her back into the world of circuits and multidimensional matrices of the ship's master computer, and pause.
"I believe," he says and she can just imagine the tilt of his head and the expression of slight confusion in his pale eyes, "that I shall…miss you, Andromeda."
She smiles. "I'm not going far, Data. I'm all around you."
She closes her eyes and, in the millisecond before the world goes bright, hears him flip the last switch.
The next time he comes to visit, she flings the doors open wide, and grins like an idiot, and tells him do you suppose we could save the day for real this time and come in already.
The corner of his image's mouth curve up in what for him is a blinding grin and he does.