Sabine has everything she needs within her four walls.
But then why do I feel so empty?
She presses her rosy cheek against the single mirrored side. There are people out there, she knows, and they are always watching. A single hot tear peels itself from her skin and races to the chromatic floor.
Who lives on the other side? She sniffles and wipes her nose on her sleeve. It can’t be just me in this small, narrow world? Can it?
A hiss, and DPAN-1476 emerges through the mysterious black rectangle on the wall. Sabine can never find the hidden passageway through which DPAN-1476 visits. She has run her palms across every square centimeter of her four walls and found nothing but smooth, endless imprisonment guised as, “For your own safety and security, Miss.”
He—if the robot can be considered a “he”—is vaguely humanoid with polished, white limbs and a black, artificial smile that reminds Sabine of when she closes her eyes. Sometimes, she likes to picture DPAN-1476 wearing silly hats, like the ones she has laid neatly upon her dresser. It helps her pretend they aren’t the only ones around. A whole big, wide world for one little girl and a robot? No way, no way.
Sabine ignores the tedious twit of a robot and instead drums her fingers on the glass. Someplace else, at a different time, she imagines a friend on the other side, tapping back. She cups her ear and waits for a response. If she listens hard enough, she hears a faint echo: Tap, tap, tap. But it’s only her heartbeat reminding her she’s forever alone.
“Good morning, Miss,” DPAN-1476 says. “How are we feeling today?” Sabine grunts. “To be expected. Your vitamin D, B12, and zinc levels are quite low. Not to worry, I’ve taken the liberty of adjusting your daily libation to account for these deficiencies. You will be feeling right as rain in no time.”
A sudden flutter of weightlessness surges from the pit of Sabine’s stomach. She turns to DPAN-1476, grinning ear to ear.
“Rain?” she asks. “What’s that? Please, tell me. You have to. You can’t mention something I don’t understand and not explain it to me. What color is it? Does it taste good? Can you bring me some?”
“Better than your libation, I imagine.” DPAN-1476’s voice processor imitates a deep belly laugh. Sabine rolls her eyes. “It is a human idiom, Miss. Nothing more.”
“But what is it? Rain.”
“Precipitation, Miss. You’ll learn all about it in Unit 9. Now, drink up. You’re already three minutes, twenty-one seconds late for consumption.”
Sabine folds her arms across her chest and shakes her head. “But I don’t wanna wait.”
“All in good time.”
DPAN-1476 hands Sabine a non-descript vial. She pouts but takes it from her keeper. The libation leaves a metallic taste in her mouth, and she coughs as the last viscous drop slides down the back of her throat.
“Very good, Miss.”
She glances at the flat surface through which DPAN-1476 entered and back at the fading impression of her cheek on the mirror.
“Why are we here?”
They’ve been through this a thousand times before, but Sabine asks every day. Maybe one day she will catch the little robot off guard and get a real answer out of him. Today is not destined to be that day.
“You are here because you are an incredibly special young lady. I am here because it is my primary directive to see to your every biological need. To educate you and prepare you for tomorrow.”
“No, like…What’s our purpose? Why are we here, as in alive?” DPAN-1476 imitates clearing his throat. “Sorry, Deep. You know what I mean.”
DPAN-1476 connects to the console. His features go blank for a moment, and the machine whirs on.
“You’re ignoring me.”
DPAN-1476 disconnects. “I apologize, Miss. I am not programmed to respond to such queries.”
Sabine kicks the space between them and storms away, checking to make sure DPAN-1476 sees her spectacle. When he doesn’t react, she sighs and faces her back to him.
“Do you still wish to learn about rain, Miss? I have gone against protocol and loaded Unit 9 prematurely.” He winks in LED. “Do not tattle on me. Ha-ha-ha.”
She squeals and is at the console before he’s finished speaking. Her eyes twinkle emerald as she dances on the balls of her feet.
DPAN-1476 disengages the link from the charging module alongside the console. Sabine subconsciously itches the port built into her neck. A warm, tingling sensation spreads down her spine as he plugs her in. Her eyes flicker and roll to white; her muscles tense and her brow begins to spasm.
Sabine is surrounded by a cacophony of animal sounds: monkeys, birds, chirping insects. Far in the distance, a low roar underlines the melody. The air is heavy and damp. She’s been here before, not long ago. She’s learned all the names of all the animals and all the plants: Panthera onca, Ramphastos toco, Nepenthes rafflesiana. She knows which ones are safe, which are shy, and which will eat her given the opportunity.
She knows they’re all gone, too. If not forever, to somewhere she’ll never go.
Something is different this time.
“This is rain,” DPAN-1476’s disembodied voice says.
The sky rumbles. A musky, earthy scent overwhelms her. Dark, fluffy clouds roll into view between the empty spaces of the rain forest’s thick canopy. Bright, silver-blue light flashes. An ear-splitting crack scatters a flock of birds perched above her. She sees the streaks first, as if the clouds are crying. Then, drop by drop, she feels the world’s tears as they penetrate to the forest floor. Slowly, at first, they drench her and everything around her.
Sabine is crying, too. And laughing wildly. This is why they call it rain forest. She holds her arms out and spins as fast as she can until she falls over from dizziness. The rain is cold and refreshing on her muddy face; it washes all her questions away.
She shouts at the top of her lungs, and her voice reverberates from tree to tree. The storm shouts back in booms and bangs.
When the rain finally dies down, Sabine lays in silence for a long time. The rain forest’s music returns, bringing with it a numbing familiarity. She’s been here before, and the storm is losing its novelty.
Then, someone shouts. It’s not Sabine—her voice is caught in a most splendid moment—and it’s not the passing storm. It’s a male’s voice, like DPAN-1476’s but less mechanical, and it’s from a distant, nearby place. She jumps up and listens for the sound to come again.
There it is! Beyond the trees.
She sprints towards the voice, desperately clinging to its origin. The forest passes in a blur. Low-hanging branches score her face and arms.
The link severs and she slams bodily into the mirror. Blood is streaked across it from her split lip and nose.
“No!” she screams, pounding her fists on the glass so hard it ripples and distorts her reflection. “No, no, no. You can’t leave me here. You can’t!”
DPAN-1476 restrains her and injects a burning-cold liquid into her neck. Her limbs slacken and her vision blurs. She’s being dragged away from the mirror as her world is quickly fading to black.
Before she’s gone completely, she hears the unmistakable echo of pounding fists from the other side of the mirror. Without a doubt, someone is there, and she’s comforted knowing she’ll never again be alone within her four walls.