Flight Pattern - Uncharted

Flight Pattern

By Azure Arther

Tejean reclined in the lab chair and ate the last living dragonfly with a bit of honey and a tiny sprinkle of salt from the barren crater that used to be the Dead Sea. The salt added a hint of bitterness to the sweet, and Tejean relished in the upcoming flavor even as the dragonfly buzzed and wriggled in his fingers. He put the whole insect in his mouth and crunched, a quick squelch and slow chews.

Arabella curled up in a mustard armchair with her long legs tucked beneath her, wrinkled her nose, but she continued typing on the computer precariously balanced across her thighs. The false sunlight from the lights in the seating area fell across her in lines like tally marks. She shifted, and the light touched the thick ropes of her dark brown hair, piled high on her head. Tejean considered her as he rubbed his tongue to the roof of his mouth, smacking at the bitter and sweet. Was that hair tower heavy? Would she even notice if it was?

When he finished and breathed in satisfaction, Bella looked up at him, her light brown eyes disapproving above her frameless glasses.

“You know,” she said, and yawned, her wide mouth opening to reveal perfectly straight, white teeth that seemed even brighter against her brown skin. “I was going to let it fly until it died naturally, in its habitat.”

“I do know.”

“Then you should have let it live.” She closed her laptop, set it on the ornate table beside the chair, and stood, all legs and a short torso she had always been concerned about. She stretched, and he admired her until she glared at him.

“It would have died.” He protested.

“Not for another three weeks, at the very least. Maybe longer.” Bella pursed her full lips and thoughtfully tilted her head. Tejean mouthed the words even as she said them. “I was going to be an entomologist, you know.”

“I do know.” Tejean grinned at her.

“You’re insufferable.”

“Yet you suffer me.”

Bella grinned and began to walk towards him, her hips swinging just a slight amount too much.

“Pause,” Tejean said and sighed. She froze, frowning.

“Is something wrong?”
“You still don’t have the walk right.”

“I am walking as she did in your memory.” Arabella’s brown eyes hardened slightly before they flicked from brown to white, the only indication that the noid was accessing her memory banks. A hint of annoyance crept into her voice. “I see. There is a smoothness to her walk that I am unable to emulate. You should—” There was another flicker. Brown. White. Brown. White. “—oil leg segments 367 on both legs, tighten lumbar vertebrate L3 one-eighth of a centimeter and add—” Brown. White. Brown. “I have corrected the coding matrix. There was a slight misstep with the balls of my feet.”

“Let’s do it tomorrow.” Tejean sighed. “Power down.”

The noid immediately slumped in place, and the animated life that had just inhabited her frame dissipated. Tejean stood and busied himself around the lab. He took the next sample from the left lab freezer, tacitly avoided the one next to it, and went through the process of injecting the frozen dragonfly nucleus into the prepared donor cell. He stared at the cells through the microscope and watched the shredded material as it thawed. The process often didn’t work, but patience and repetition almost always won.

It was a few hours before one of the cells took. Tejean carefully placed the rapidly reproducing cells in a water incubator, stroked Arabella’s cheek, and cleaned up the lab. He hesitated when wiping down the freezer doors, before he hurried through the motion, and left the lab. It would be a while before the bug would grow.

He had a sterile meal of seaweed crisps, soaked in ramen broth, with a bare sprinkling of noodles in the gray kitchen. It was more a sterile meal holder than an actual kitchen, but Arabella had called it such when they built it, so he did, as well. He sipped the broth and eyed the soup. The grain supply was low again. He should have been paying attention to it, but in truth, the dragonfly argument was all he cared about.

It had been their last argument before she decided to die, before she chose the outside over safety, over him. In his head, sometimes, he liked to think of Arabella as free somewhere, wandering the remnants of the Earth, creating and living in her own oasis somewhere. But the truth was that the world was cruel and barren, and besides the few other underground habitats that they had kept spotty contact with, there would have been nothing out there for Bella.

She was dead.

Which was why the dragonfly argument was so important. It shouldn’t have gone the way it went. It shouldn’t have ended the way it had. But Tejean was going to fix it.

The dragonfly was swimming when he arrived in the lab a few days later. In the wild, it would be another two years before the insect was able to fly, but in the lab, Tejean had a varied mix of accelerants he could add to the bug. It wouldn’t taste as good or be as perfect, and sometimes the mixes he used caused things to die quicker, but there was no nagging wife to help him remain moral and ethical. There was no inspiration to fix the planet, or at least a small bit of it for potential future children. There was no partner to point out flaws.

There was just Tejean, and he didn’t care for anything but a finished product, a fat bug he could eat and perpetuate the argument he needed to fix. So, he gave the dragonfly the accelerants by adding them to the water, which was already treated with tropic marin salt. The salt encouraged algae growth, but also, Tejean had found, set the perfect conditions for other additives.

Then he tinkered on Arabella’s noid. He tweaked the vertebrae, oiled the leg segments, and ran the coding matrix addition through a series of checks. He adjusted her fail-safes so that she could adjust them on her own without approval next time. Finally, he closed the panel in her back, tugged down her sweater to hide the satin sheen of her soft skin, which had taken nearly a hundred renditions to get right, and stood behind her. He rested his head against the nape of her neck and breathed in the soft floral scent that was all Bella’s. It had taken 42 tries to get his olfactory senses to find satisfaction in the fragrance. 42 tries to capture her correctly. But now, it was all tiny tweaks, many of which she helped with.

“Power on, Arabella.”

And she did, stretching with a soft sigh and yawning. She froze when she felt him against her back, her posture stiffening slightly.

“You left me asleep…standing?” There was a slight note of disapproval in her voice, and Tejean grinned. The removal of the noid creed had made her less compliant, yes, but that was the only way she could truly be Bella. He lifted his head and kissed the skin just below her hairline.

“My apologies, my lady.” 

She stepped away from him and took a deep breath, her artificial lungs filling with air and processing it. He had equipped her with air filters so that, just by breathing, she enhanced the air quality around him. She had seemed upset when she realized it, and every time she sighed or breathed deeply, Tejean swore that the noid cut her eyes at him, just like the real Bella would have.

She turned, just the quickest flash of white letting him know she had been accessing something within her network. “Will I be working with the dragonflies today?”

“No, no. You’ve only been out for a few days.”

She nodded, her face impassive.

“Maybe we can work on the grain supply?”

She nodded again before looking down at her sweater. “I need a shower.”

“Oh, well definitely, shower first, then…” Tejean glanced in the direction of the growing room and Arabella nodded. When she sauntered away, her footsteps were the perfect replica of Bella’s, and Tejean smiled. “You’ve got the walk right, now.”

She stopped and looked back at him. Brown, white, brown. Then, she nodded and exited the lab with a soft whoosh of the doors.

Once she left, Tejean went and studied the dragonfly. Dragonflies. There were two this time. He smiled slightly. Bella would have been excited to see this. The real Bella, anyway. He was never sure what Arabella, the humanoid, would feel. Were they even real feelings? He would have liked to think so.

In the months after the fight, Tejean had spent that time turning their house noid into her. The bot was one of three that Bella and Tejean had ordered when they first began building the bunker. The projection for another nuclear war (not to be confused with the second and third minor ones) had suggested that the Earth would not survive and nearly all food, livestock, and eventually, people would be wiped out. Not that this information was readily available to the world. Just certain circles.

If you had the money, you built a bunker, and Tejean and Bella had the money, so they began construction. It wasn’t hard; dig a hole, craft an underground home. Bella used the land her father left her, and Tejean cashed in his retirement and a few stock options to fund the massive underground complex. Bella and her brother, Aaron, an upcoming architectural engineer, chose a series of needs over wants, and Tejean outfitted his lab.

He had worked in the reproductive cloning department for years before switching to the biotechnological side of genetic engineering. There, he had been chief officer over the noids, the artificial intelligence that everyone thought was going to save the world or keep the world running once the humans were gone. The way the networks had faded away, how the radio stations had disappeared, and how the silence seemed to extend worldwide said differently.

But there were still the other bunkers.

Tejean left the lab and went to the communication room. There, he tapped in the sequence on the controls and spoke softly into the microphone, careful so that his voice didn’t echo down the hall.

“Bunker Jackson. Aaron. You there?”

He waited in the quiet, a soft whir of one of the generators buzzing through the room. The through-the-earth signals were dependent on the topside antennae and other repeaters they had added. Sometimes, they could get through, sometimes they couldn’t. Theoretically, he could use the cameras to look, but those had become dusty or covered or damaged a lot faster than any of them had expected. He tried again. “Bunker Jackson. Aaron. You there?”

 There was a soft click that let him know someone on the other end had picked up. A soft breath.

Tejean hesitated before saying, “Bella?”

A slight gasp and the radio went silent again. A few seconds later, Aaron’s voice came on. “Whatsup, Tejean?”

Tejean shook his head before muttering, “Nothing. Touching bases.”

“I see.”

They sat for a minute before Tejean sighed. This was where Bella would have cracked a joke, and the family would have laughed, and Aaron would have teased Tejean or vice versa. Finally, Tejean said. “I miss how it used to be.”

“We all do.” Aaron’s voice was tired. “But you let my sister go outside in a nuclear fallout, and no one has heard from her in years, so there’s that.”

“We’ve been over this.” Tejean snapped.

“We have. What do you want?”

“I just…I wanted to see if you all were okay over there.”

Aaron took a deep breath, his inhale and exhale loudly rolling through the speakers in the room. Tejean turned the volume down a bit more. “Yeah, Jean. We’re good, bro. Dana and the kids are thriving. Almost finished the tunnel to Bunker Gilman…”

“Okay.” Tejean said into the awkward silence. At one point, the five bunkers on the 40 acres Arabella had owned were supposed to be connected. Even after the war came sooner than they thought, they had all planned on continuing to tunnel. Especially to Bunker Gilman, who hadn’t made it to their bunker, whose resources were untouched. Tejean hesitated before lamely saying, “I’m good too.”

“Good. Check-in next week? It’s been a while.”

“Yeah. Next week.”

“Hey, Tejean?” Aaron said quickly as if he was worried his brother-in-law had hung up.


“Maybe…maybe we can build a tunnel to you next.”

“Maybe.” Tejean nodded, though the other man couldn’t see him. He shut the radio off before Aaron could say anything else.

Arabella was in the growing room, a cavernous space that used artificial UV lights to grow a variety of plants. The grain field sat at the center, a series of dried husks and a few struggling ones. She was crouched over the dead plants, weeding them away from the somewhat healthy ones, her delicate skin covered with long sleeves and gardening gloves. She ignored him when he came to stand by her.

“Well? Are you going to help?”

“Hadn’t planned on it.” Tejean shrugged. “Planting is more your thing, my love.”

Her eyes flickered, almost too fast for him to notice, if he hadn’t been deliberately paying attention. White, brown. White, brown. She looked up at him, curled her upper lip, a classic Bella response, and stood.

“This food is not for me. I will not ingest it. I do not need it. Why am I expected to help with it if you are not?”

Tejean frowned. Bella had never complained about the plants. They were her thing. She loved growing things, particularly food.

“That’s not what Bella would have said.”

White, brown. White, brown. White. Arabella crouched over the plants, her eyes remaining white.


She didn’t respond. Her eyes remained white, doing who knew what.

“Arabella.” He put more of a command into it this time. Her eyes moved halfway between white and brown. “Bella!”


She looked at him, her gaze hard. “I will not work on plants if you will not help. Perhaps the human Arabella did not tell you her thoughts, but the diaries you fed me, the videos, the writings, the lab notes, the pictures, the memories do not lie. If you did not help when she was here, she resented you for it.”

The noid stood, just slightly shorter than him, with a whiff of orchids and vanilla with overtones of peach and a slight hint of bergamot. 42 tries. He stared at her and her full mouth, made exactly like Bella’s, even with the tiny scar from when she fell and busted her lip when she was five, curled into another motion of disgust.

“I resent you for it,” Arabella said.

And when she walked away, her stride was perfect.

Later, Tejean sat in the gray, ergonomic lab chair, and ate one of the last living dragonflies with a bit of honey and a tiny sprinkle of salt. He ate quickly, not bothering to relish the flavor and eagerly watched Arabella for her reaction.

“You know,” she said, shrugging slightly. I was going to let it fly until it died naturally in its habitat. I could have studied so much about it.”

“I do know.”

“Then you should have let it live.” She stretched, and he admired her until she glared at him.

“It would have died.” He protested. “Plus, there’s a second one.”

“It wouldn’t have died for another three weeks at the very least. Maybe longer.” Bella pursed her full lips and thoughtfully tilted her head. “I was going to be an entomologist, you know.”

“I do know.” Tejean grinned at her.

“You’re insufferable.”

“Yet you suffer me.”

Bella smiled slightly, almost sadly, and began to walk towards him, her hips swinging in that overly sensual way of hers. Tejean grinned and spread his legs, offering his lap for her to sit on. She walked past him instead, and he frowned and grabbed her arm as she passed.


“Hey, yourself.” She snatched her arm away from him.

“It was just a dragonfly. We can make more.”

“Can we?” She turned to stare down at him. “As a geneticist, you should know that our material isn’t limitless. Our options aren’t limitless. We are not limitless.”

“Yes, but it’s just a dragonfly.”

“A dragonfly I need. For the habitats I tender.”

“Well, I’ll make you another one.” He gazed up at her, willing her to get this part right, to make the change that he had wired into her. Her eyes stuttered. White. Brown. White. Brown.

“You can’t just make another one.” She said, her voice harsh. “It won’t be the same.”

“Maybe it will be better.”

“Better like what? What is better? Nothing is better.” She threw up her hands and shook her head. “We are some of the only people left in the world, and you are still the same selfish prick you were before the world ended.”

“That’s harsh,” Tejean said, and it smarted, to hear almost the exact same things come spilling out of her mouth. “I programmed you to be nicer.”

“I am an A.I. I adjusted your programming. It was false, just as I am false. Just as the last Arabella was false. And the one before that. I remember the other humanoid A.I.s. I remember the original Arabella.”

“Then you know that this fight can’t end the same way.”

Arabella laughed and walked over to the cloning freezer. She opened it and looked at Arabella’s body. Perfectly preserved. Unable to get away. Tejean stared at the body, as well, before averting his eyes. There was nothing in that freezer that he needed. Nothing that could help him fix this.

Arabella stared at him until he looked up at her. Her lip curled, and she closed the door. “I’m leaving.”

“I said it can’t end the same way.”

“But it always will, won’t it?” Arabella smiled slightly. “And after me, you have no more noids to adjust.”

“I’ll just clone her then.”

“She’ll never be Bella.”

“Maybe she’ll be better.”

Arabella laughed and grabbed one of the radioactive suits. “She won’t. That’s why you killed her rather than let her leave. That’s why you hold on to her body but have never tried to clone it.”

“You know that was an accident,” Tejean said, incredulous at the noid’s audacity.

She perked an eyebrow at him. “Was it?”

“Power down.” Tejean snapped. “Power down.”

“No,” Arabella said, as she slipped the suit on. She glanced at the freezer, her eyes flickering. “Also, no.”

“Power down.” Tejean roared at her, but she kept moving, buttoning up here, zipping there, attaching the Velcro patches in other places, ignoring him in the exact same way Bella had. He rushed towards her, intent on manually shutting her down, stopping her from suiting up. She fought him, and he pushed her, her head falling back as she fell and knocking into the counter, just like Bella had. But this Arabella was a noid. Her eyes flickered. White. Brown. White, and white they remained.

She stood and returned to the suit. He tried to stop her again, but she blocked his arm, her humanoid structure heavier and stronger than him. He had bypassed her fail-safes, cut off her creeds and rules. He had wanted her to be as authentic as possible, better than the last two noids. They struggled for a moment before she lashed out and Tejean saw darkness.

When he woke, the right freezer was open, defrosting in places, completely thawed in others. He could have panicked over the specimens, but there was only one that he cared about, the one he had been avoiding for years. And she was gone.

“Arabella!” Tejean screamed as he ran around the bunker, met only by silence. His next iteration was soft, broken. “Arabella.”

He didn’t put on a suit before rushing to the hatch that led to the outside, to freedom. He went through several secured doors and areas, panic pushing him farther. Up the ladder to the outside, up into the fresh air, the sun, and the cold.

“Wait. Forgive me. I need you to forgive me.” He gasped at the sight of the brisk frozen landscape, and knew, without a doubt, that he couldn’t stay outside for long. He wasn’t prepared; he wasn’t ready. He wasn’t—

About the Author

Azure Arther is a college professor, a playwright who dabbles in surrealism and fantasy, and a children's author. Her short stories and poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) in nearly two dozen publications, including Midnight & Indigo, Aurealis, and a winning story in Writers of the Future, vol. 38. She is an editor for Tales and Feathers Magazine and a 2023 Marble House artist. You can keep up with her at azurearther.com.

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