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Alternate Hypotheses

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X9-21 was certain he hadn’t made a sound. Crying out in pain was beneath his dignity as a courser, and irritating to the humans whose job it was to repair him when he was damaged. He might have inhaled a little sharply, as the tweezers dug roughly through muscle, seeking the embedded bullet, but no sound would have been audible even a few feet away, let alone in the next room.

He had no idea what had caused the door to bang open so loudly, or why the Director, framed in the doorway, looked so furiously angry.

The Director? Here?

The technician who’d been holding the tweezers had stood up hastily as she entered. “Director--”

“There you are,” she said to X9-21, who was holding as still as possible, awaiting whatever reprimand or punishment she might have for him-- for having allowed himself to be injured like this, letting the Institute’s property be damaged, taking up its valuable medical resources-- but she didn’t say it angrily.

She leaned down over the cold steel table on which he’d obediently laid himself down, supine, at the technician’s brusque instruction. Her face was worried. “I didn’t even know you were hurt, until I asked why you weren’t back yet--”

Her gaze was sweeping over his naked body, halting on the bullet wound in his leg. “Oh, my God! X9-21--”

He was ashamed to be seen by her, like this. Not naked-- his body was her weapon, and she had every right to examine it-- but wounded, weakened, compromised. Useless.

“I was just trying to get the bullet out, ma’am,” said the technician. “After that, and a stimpak, it should be good to get dressed and report in on its mission.”

“I can give you my report now, ma’am,” X9-21 said, holding his voice as steady as possible. “I apologize for the inconvenience.”

“Why is he lying on an autopsy table?” she demanded of the technician. “Are we out of infirmary beds?”

“This isn’t an infirmary, ma’am,” said the technician, bemused. “It’s a synth repair facility.”

“Ugh.” The Director made a wordless noise of frustration. “OK. I guess it’s good that coursers get severely injured rarely enough that I didn’t know about the synth repair facility until now. But heads up, we’re gonna make some changes to your department. Who’s your boss?”

“Dr. Stone, ma’am,” said the technician nervously.

“OK,” said the Director, and she was picking something up from the table, and moving down X9-21’s body, towards the wounded leg. “Have you given him any anesthetic?”

“It’s not standard procedure, ma’am,” said the technician.

He felt something cool and wet swipe over his skin, near the wound, and then two efficient, callused fingers press down on the skin, and the slight sting of a sterilized needle penetrating his skin. He wondered what she’d injected him with.

Her voice said, “Go get me one of those wheelie beds from the infirmary. And a pillow and blanket.”

The technician hesitated.

“Excuse me,” said the Director. “Are we gonna have a problem?”

“No, ma’am,” said the technician, and left the room.

The pain was fading from X9-21’s leg. The numbness spreading through his leg brought with it a strange floating sensation. Warmth. He didn’t like it. He was compromised enough already, from the injury.

“What are you doing?” he asked. He shouldn’t have asked. He should have submitted wordlessly to whatever the Director chose to do to him. What had she done to him? What was she doing now? He couldn’t see her.

“Getting this bullet out,” she said. There was pressure on his leg, but no pain. It was frightening. Pain meant awareness, of what was wrong. Lack of pain meant there was something wrong with the signalling system, with his nervous system. Much worse than a simple bullet wound. “Christ, these barbarians. Just because you’re a badass murderbot doesn’t mean you don’t deserve anesthetic.”

“I don’t like anesthetic,” he said, and, again, he shouldn’t have said it. It wasn’t his place to question the Director’s actions, especially with regard to himself.

She made a little noise, and there was a small clatter, and then silence for a moment. Business in the vicinity of his leg. Pressure, again. No pain. He fought not to drift, to drowse.

Then she reappeared, her head haloed in fluorescent light from above, looking down at him. “You don’t like it?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. It wasn’t even the proper form of apology, but it was all he could think of. She was angry. Was that why he couldn’t think properly?

“You don’t need to apologize,” she said to him. “You haven’t done anything wrong. Is there some physiological reason why I shouldn’t have injected you with Med-X? Will it have an adverse effect on your biochemistry?”

“No, ma’am,” he said, glad to have a technical, objective question to answer, an easy one. “My system will process the substance slightly more efficiently than a human’s would, meaning, in this instance, that it will wear off a little more quickly.”

She nodded. “OK, well, the bullet’s out and the stim’s in, so even when it does wear off you shouldn’t feel any pain. Why don’t you like anesthetic, then?”

That was easy, too. “It impedes my functioning, ma’am.”

“So you’d rather suffer?”

“I don’t want to suffer,” he said, struggling to formulate the correct answer to her question in a mind that felt terrifyingly sluggish. “But I need to function properly. Do you want my report now, ma’am?”

“No,” she said. “I’ll take your report later, when the Med-X has worn off. I wouldn’t have injected you with it if I required you to be fully functional and articulate during the span of time I expected it to affect you.”

That was true. And a relief. And that span of time would probably be shorter than she’d anticipated, so that was good, too.

The table was cold under him. Autopsy table. Autopsies were for dead things. What had she meant? She’d said something about… limited resources. Changes to the department. She’d been so angry, when she came in. He’d taken too long to report to her. So long that she’d had to come find him. That was wrong.

“I can give you my report now,” he said, hearing an unfamiliar edge of desperation in his own voice. Unfamiliar since the conclusion of his training, anyway. Had she said his leg was healed? There was nothing else wrong with him, was there? “I can return to my duties.”

“No,” she said. “Not yet. I’ll tell you when I require your report, and I’ll tell you when I want you back on duty.”

That was good. Very good. It was always easiest to be told. Humans didn’t like to have to give continual instruction, so part of his duty was to function independently, make decisions based on his own judgment, but it was easier, much easier, to be told. To wait to be told.

She’d said-- hadn’t she, just now-- that she would tell him when she required anything further from him? Or only when she required two things? The two things she would tell him were: when she required his report, and when she required him to return to duty. And-- a moment before-- she’d said she didn’t require him to be fully functional and articulate. At this time. But that didn’t rule out the possibility that she required something else from him, now, that he was failing to do.


She was still close, leaning over him. “Yeah, X9-21, I’m here. What do you need?”

“Am I--” He couldn’t think how to put words to the question, although it seemed so clear and self-evident within him, it seemed as if she must see it, without his having to articulate it. She’d said she didn’t need him articulate right now.

“You’re just fine, X9-21,” the Director said calmly. “I injected you with anesthetic so you wouldn’t be in physical pain, and it had the side effect of making your mental faculties a little fuzzy. That’s OK. I did that to you, so everything about the way you feel right now is my responsibility, not yours. It’ll wear off soon, but until it does, I won’t hold you responsible for anything you do or say-- or don’t do or say-- under its influence. Understood, unit?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

That was easy.

That was good.

He’d doubted, once-- despite what X6-88 said, despite what Father said-- that a wastelander, a surface dweller, a prewar relic whose former occupation didn’t even exist any more, could be an effective director of the Institute.

He’d been wrong to doubt. She was a good director. Effective, and intelligent, and decisive.

Did she know he’d doubted her? Did that make her angry?

She didn’t seem angry.

“Hey,” she said, and his eyes, which had started to drift closed, snapped open, but she wasn’t talking to him. There was a rattling sound from nearby. “Good. OK, X9-21, I do need something from you now, OK? I need you to try to get up.”

“I can get up,” he said, and moved, quickly, and felt her hand close around his arm, and froze.

“Easy does it, unit,” she said, laughter in her voice. “Slow and steady wins the race. Just sit up, first-- slowly-- good. Now feet on the floor. And onto this.”

Softness, under his weight. A bed? Yes, she’d sent the technician for a bed. For him to lie on, instead of the table. Now she was settling his head on a pillow, and covering him with a blanket. Soft, warm-- as if he were a human. Being settled to sleep.

“With all due respect, ma’am,” said the technician’s voice from nearby, “it doesn’t do them any good to baby them. With a courser, I’m told it could even compromise the efficacy of its training, if you’re too soft with it.”

X9-21’s eyes opened again, as widely as they could, and he looked for her, listened for her voice. He didn’t want his training compromised. He didn’t want to be decommissioned. She’d said this was her responsibility. She’d said he wouldn’t be punished. Hadn’t she?

“I’m here, X9-21,” she said, and she was there, leaning over him. “You’re fine. What’s your name?”

He didn’t have a name.

“Ben,” said the technician. “Ben Chauncey. Ma’am.”

“Are you with the SRB?”

“No, ma’am,” said the technician. “Medical.”

“So it isn’t your job to supervise courser training and maintenance?”

“No, ma’am.”

“And-- just so I’m perfectly clear on this point-- did my son, the former Director, appoint you, before he died, to check in on me every so often and make sure I was doing my job properly?”

“No, ma’am,” said the technician, whose voice had been getting progressively less confident with each of her questions, and who now sounded downright frightened.

“Just making sure,” she said. “Go get me a chair. And tell Dr. Stone I want to speak with him.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

X9-21 was looking at her face. Humans sometimes took offense when you looked at their faces-- it was safest to keep one’s eyes slightly downcast, unless otherwise instructed-- but she’d said she wouldn’t hold him responsible right now.

She looked so much like Father. Younger, and female, but she had the same bone structure, the same mouth, the same eyes.

Since humans died-- inevitably-- it was good that she was here instead. Father’s mother. His appointed heir.

“What are you looking at?” she asked him, sounding amused rather than annoyed.

“At you, ma’am,” he said.

“Yeah?” she said. “How’s my hair?”

He didn’t know how to answer that, so he didn’t.