More Than A Machine

He saw the panel spark and knew what was about to happen; he could recognize the signs of electrical failure almost instantly. He shouted a warning, threw himself forward to knock Sarah out of the way… and he kept right on going.

The panel shorted out, setting off explosions all around him, but he felt nothing. He spun in time to watch helplessly as Khalid slammed into the console, clearly taking the brunt of the blast. Sarah stumbled from the force of the Nietzschean's shove, and Dylan reached out instinctively to steady her.

He drew back before his hand could pass through her again, but standing there and doing nothing while the others came forward to help Khalid was almost impossible. He knew what he was, but he was *there*, wasn't he? If only he could *do* something--

Dylan jerked awake, muscles twitching involuntarily as he fought for a breath he hadn't been denied. He could feel his heart pounding… but more importantly, he could feel the sheets against his skin and the blanket clutched in his fingers as he shoved it away.

He laid his hand against the wall, taking comfort in its solidity beneath his fingertips. Being a hologram had its advantages--he could move instantly from one place to another, closed doors were no object, and he certainly didn't have to worry about bumping into anything. But overall the experience had been, quite literally, a nightmare.

"Rommie," he said quietly, glancing over at his worktable.

Her miniature holoimage appeared there the moment he spoke. "Yes, Dylan?"

"I want to apologize," he said with a sigh, running his hand across his eyes. "I shouldn't have said what I did earlier."

"When?" she asked, a politely confused expression on her face.

He mustered a small smile for her effort to spare him this conversation, but he wasn't going to let it go like that. "When I said--or implied, at least--that you couldn't feel. That was totally out of line. I'm sorry."

She shrugged a little, but she looked gratified. "You were under a lot of stress… We both were. I understand."

"Yeah, well," he muttered. "When you've been a hologram, anything you can touch feels real. I realize that now. I shouldn't have expected you to know the difference; you don't have any basis for comparison."

She raised an eyebrow at that, and her warm expression vanished. "Dylan--I didn't correct you before because it didn't seem appropriate. But your statement is no more true now that it was then."

He frowned, surprised at the change in her demeanor. "What statement?"

Rommie's miniature image vanished, replaced by a full size hologram standing beside his table, and she folded her arms. "Twice today you've implied that I don't feel, or that my feeling is somehow inferior to yours."

"I didn't mean--" he began, but she didn't let him finish.

"Your stimulation is purely electrical, the same as mine," she told him. "When you speak, my human avatar hears the same sounds that Beka does, or Trance. When you touch me, I *do* feel you--just because my sensors are more sensitive than yours doesn't mean that the impressions I receive from them are any less valid."

He stared at her for a moment, recognizing the anger in her eyes. She wouldn't take a single wrong word right now; he had already pushed her tolerance much farther than he had realized. He had never seen that look directed at him before.

"You don't think of me as a person, Dylan," she said, when he didn't respond. "That's the difference between you and the others."

"That's not true," he interrupted, and she let him. She had to have, for he had spoken too softly to override anything she might have said.

He hesitated, only now starting to realize how much his attitude might have offended her. "That's not true," he repeated, for lack of anything more convincing to say.

She just looked at him. "Yes, it is," she answered, and there was an unmistakable sadness in her voice. "It's always been true. And it still is."

He sighed, pressing his fingers to his forehead as he looked down at the floor. "Yes, it is," he admitted quietly. "But maybe it's true--because… well, 'that way lies madness', as they say."

She didn't reply right away. He could hear her frowning when at last she said, "I don't understand."

He glanced up at her again, saw the honest confusion on her face, and only barely kept himself from sighing once more. Of course she didn't understand. She didn't have to work to follow protocol; unlike him, she had had it programmed directly into her. It didn't take an effort for her to remember what was and was not appropriate.

"Look, Rommie…" He wasn't sure there was any way he could say this that wouldn't be misinterpreted, but he had to give it a shot. They'd never been anything less than honest with each other. "You're… well, you're incredibly attractive," he admitted, forcing himself to hold her gaze. He couldn't help a rueful smile as he added, "Both as a ship and as a woman."

She didn't answer, and he looked away for a minute. That confession, in the spirit it had been intended, could have gotten him in a lot of trouble three hundred years ago. "So you see why I can't start thinking of you like that," he said quietly. "I *can't* think of you as a person; it's too… it's too easy."

"I guess I'll take that as a compliment," she said at last, and he looked up in surprise. Her expression was not one of censure, but of disappointment. "But I can't *not* think of you as a person."

He frowned a little. "What do you mean?" he asked warily.

She frowned right back. "To you, I'm just the ship. But you've never been just the captain to me; not since the first day you came aboard. I'm sorry if that violates Commonwealth protocol, but caring for my--crew is not something I'll ever report."

He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

She lifted her chin, putting her hands behind her back in the official "at ease" position. "Good night, Dylan."

"Wait," he said, scrambling to stand up. "Rommie... even if there was anyone to report you to--I wouldn't do it."

She gave him a measured look. "No?"

"No," he repeated. "No one said this was going to be easy, and we all knew we might have to break a rule or two along the way." He shook his head once. "We're running a *warship* with a crew of salvageers and mercenaries, after all."

"And one fine High Guard commander," Rommie added softly.

He smiled a little, remembering the last time she'd used those words in an attempt to cheer him up. "Even given that… maybe especially given that--we're lucky the ship knows what she's doing."

She smiled back. "Thank you," she said simply.

So maybe they were the exception that proved the rule. But if it allowed him to be friends with his ship--with Rommie--then it was an exception he could live with.

As he sat back down he heard her say, "Oh, and Dylan?"

He glanced in her direction, raising an eyebrow at the suddenly smug look on her face.

"Apology accepted," she informed him, and her holoimage winked out.

Run Away