Fiction: Conscientia

By Natalie Blake

Olive couldn’t wake her.
She even asked her lover if she’d like an iced tea, despite how the night air pricked her bare skin and heckled her arm hairs erect, but iced tea was Zoey’s favorite any time of day.
“Honey, tea or no tea?” Olive prompted a second time as she tied her robe. The silk wasn’t warming, but it looked sexy, so she kept it for the appeal. She crunched her toes into the sheepskin underfoot and waited, but the artificial glow of Zoey’s green irises didn’t blink back at her. The brunette slumbered lifelessly in her bed.
It was then that Olive’s eyes were drawn to the alarm clock on her nightstand. The numbers glowed a guilty twelve-oh-three.
Oh. She’d not realized they’d passed the midnight mark. Olive sighed and muttered a defeated, “Right. Guess not then.”
Zoey was re-charging.
Why did two hours feel so long without her? Olive poured her own tall glass with ice, ice with iced tea? Zoey would usually laugh, but make the drink for Olive anyway. Not that she had a choice. Personalized Alternate Companions were pliant like that.
Olive leant against the counter and sipped her tea, a barren, empty silence engulfing the house now she was alone. Except for —
Tick. She watched the second hand’s shunting wobble. Each twitch marked time on Olive’s two-hour sentence, with its vapid, accusing sound.
Tock. It disrupted her stillness and penetrated the deepest corners of Olive’s mindBut its insult could as well be her parents’ or friends’ spiteful words; the pain was the same.
She’s not real, you know.
“Yes, yes thank-you,” Olive grumbled at the clock.
She’d set Zoey’s charging time this way for a reason: so she’d sleep through it. But occasionally, like tonight, Olive would wake and find herself at an utter loss of what to do when alone.
So she stretched her legs long under the covers, plumped the pillows, and benched a book on her thighs deciding to keep herself busy until Zoey’s smile greeted her at two am. Then she’d be able to rest. With Zoey’s arm draped lazily and cinematically over her hips. With Zoey pressing fluttering kisses to her shoulder and hushing any nightmares away. With Zoey patterning delicate figures on her skin like binary, so Olive relaxed enough to let her eyes close.
Or Morse code.
Zoey had learned that lately; she liked tapping sweet nothings on Olive’s sternum and making her guess what they meant. Olive splayed her book open, cranked the spine and wondered where she’d gotten it from. Maybe it was Zoey’s coding.
Binary, she could appreciate. But Morse?
Yes, network updates happened time to time, and there was an odd sense of responsibility in being forced to decide what Zoey should and shouldn’t know of the world. Accept this data packet? The screen would glow. Olive struggled with it. Too often, her finger hovered before tapping confirm.
It’s not that she wanted to hold Zoey back, just that she wanted to keep her, well…Zoey, and not some generic personality upgrade.
“Are you actually going to read that?” Zoey hummed and tried to pinch the novel from Olive’s fingers.
“Oh hey, you’re back—“ Olive abandoned the book to draw her lover into a kiss. There are those beautiful eyes again.
“Back? Back from where?”
Olive’s chest tightened. “Forget it.” She tucked a lock of Zoey’s hair behind her ear. “I’m just tired.”
“I’m not surprised, it’s the middle of the night,” Zoey smirked, before a twinge of concern pinched in the corners of her eyes. “Something on your mind?”
“No, just…” Olive shook her head, blonde waves rippling. “Hold me?” She fought the pillows flat and shimmied down, then felt the rounds of Zoey’s bare breasts press into her back. The slide of Zoey’s leg between hers when she tugged herself close. “Whatever you need,” Zoey murmured, and kissed the round of Olive’s shoulder, just as she was meant to. “I’m here, okay? I love you.”
“Love you too.”
Olive sighed as she felt the ghosting strokes of Zoey’s latex blend fingertips begin their rhythm on her temple. “I’m sorry, I know it’s silly…”
“Sshhh, Just relax.” Zoey maintained the metronome-like touches, tap-tap, tap-tap, two-fingers and a thumb in a rectangle of six. Olive tried to commit the pattern memory, discern its meaning. She assumed a significance behind the repetitive mechanical movements, though probably betrayed herself by believing it.
You’re a fool, falling for one of those things.
“That’s new—“
“I was being romantic. Its—“
“Morse code, I know.” Olive huffed through the dark. If she turned, she’d be lost. Zoey’s eyes were so beautiful. Olive could gaze at the colored lineations for hours and Zoey could never understand her awe.
“Huh? No it’s braille, silly.”
“Braille?” Olive frowned.
“When I was a kid, my mother used to do it. Had insomnia all my life, haven't I.” Zoey chuckled sweetly. “You get used to it.”
She really needed to send a system report.
Olive would smile at her lover’s phrasing; ‘all my life’ she’d said. But it hurt too much. So she tucked her arm under their shared pillow and rolled over to face her.
“Don’t you ever wonder why you need so little sleep?” Olive murmured, pushing her lover for an understanding she was systematically unable to compute.
“That’s insomnia for you. It’s a bitch. There is no why.”
“Yes, but two hours? The same two hours, every night? Don’t you think that’s…strange?” Olive kept circling back to the same, painful truth.
She’s not real.
“Honestly? Midnight to two am must just be my circadian rhythm or whatever, right?” Zoey pecked a kiss on Olive’s nose, and tucked the duvet around them. “Now rest, okay? I’m here, honey. I’ll always be here.”
Olive stared at the glowing flecks of green visible in Zoey’s eyes, even in the dim of their bedroom, and smiled. “Yes, I suppose you will.”

Natalie Blake is a British-born writer, now living abroad. Her short fiction has appeared in The Bookends Review, Otherverse Magazine, and Sleet Magazine, among other notable publications. Her flash fiction has also been featured in print anthologies with Pure Slush Books. Through her work, Natalie often explores contemporary issues surrounding gender, sexuality, and the intersectionality of women's lives with wider society.