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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.

“Ma’am?”

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.

Chapter Text

He’d gotten the job done, even with the bullet lodged in his leg, but the problem with living on the surface was that getting the job done didn’t mean relaying back to be repaired. It meant either asking her to stop so that he could get the bullet out, or walking on his injured leg for hours.

He didn’t want to ask her to stop. She valued his toughness. He’d get the bullet out on his own, or ask Dr. Severne to help, once they got home.

She paid too much attention, though.

“You’re limping,” she said. “Michael! You’re injured. Sit down.”

“It’s nothing, ma’am,” he said, because she didn’t usually mind backtalk, but she’d stopped, and was scowling at him.

It had alarmed him, once, her exaggerated facial expressions, the unrestrained show of emotion, but now he found it… endearing. She was like a kitten he’d once seen, a pet of one of the Fillmore children’s, that had attacked the child’s socked foot with its entire body, biting the heel with its tiny teeth and kicking the toe with its tiny back paws, without causing the child to do more than giggle delightedly.

Not that her fighting skills were as ineffective as a kitten’s, of course-- on the contrary-- but her shows of displeasure, at least towards him, were like a kitten’s play-ferocity. Fierce frowns, with no sting of real displeasure behind them. Nothing that hurt.

Still, she wasn’t budging.

“Sit down,” she said, ferociously, and he sat down, obediently, on the stony, thistly ground.

She knelt down beside him. “Show me.”

He rolled up the stiffened, blood-soaked leg of his jeans, and she gasped.

“There’s no exit,” she said. “The bullet’s still in there. Michael, you crazy Spartan. What were you going to do, walk back to the Castle on this?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, smiling despite the pain. “What’s a Spartan?”

“It’s a thing,” she said vaguely, still examining the wound. “Shit. I can’t stim this until I get the bullet out. Just-- a sec--”

She was fumbling in the pouch where she kept healing supplies. She’d once kept other, less salutary chems there, too, but she’d stopped doing that. He’d had trouble believing, at first, that she’d really given up the habit for his sake and his alone, but Hancock had made a few comments to that effect, and she’d never disagreed. She’d smiled at him, instead, as if they shared a secret.

He didn’t recognize the purplish syringe she produced, though. Or rather, he’d seen it before, once or twice, when scavenging, but he didn’t know what it did.

“What is that?” he asked her.

“Med-X,” she said, holding up the syringe to show him. “It’s an anesthetic. And a mild narcotic. It might make you a little bit woozy, but it’ll keep it from hurting like hell when I dig that bullet out.”

He drew back, and she frowned. Not in exaggerated displeasure, this time, but in puzzlement.

“What’s up?” she asked, still holding the syringe, watching him.

“I don’t want--” He caught himself. She was indulgent, but-- “I’d prefer-- please--”

She was holding still, watching him, listening.

When he didn’t finish his sentence, she said, after a moment, “You’d prefer-- I didn’t use this on you? How come?”

“I don’t want my-- functions-- compromised,” he said, carefully. She listened to him, he knew; he was almost sure she wouldn’t use it if he asked her not to, even if he didn’t explain himself well, but he wanted to explain himself, anyway. “We’re still a long way from home. You may need protection again, before we’re safe.”

“But you’re already compromised,” she said, gesturing towards his leg. “You’re hurt.”

He tried not to wince. She hadn’t spoken harshly; it wasn’t a reprimand, simply a statement of fact.

“If you’ll give me a moment,” he said, “I can remove the bullet, and then, if I use a stimpak, I’ll be fully functional again. But if you drug me--”

“Heavens,” she said, mildly. She said Jesus Christ and fucking hell when she wanted to express intense astonishment. Heavens and goodness were the euphemisms she used when she was shocked, but trying to be gentle. “That’s kind of a dramatic way to put it.”

“If you anesthetize me,” he said, allowing himself a very slight eye-roll, and she gave him another exaggerated scowl. “It will take longer to wear off. And I’ll be mentally and perceptively impaired, rather than only physically.”

“So I’ll protect you, for a change,” she suggested.

He said, “I don’t-- I would prefer not to be-- anesthesized. Please. Ma’am.”

“OK,” she said, and eyed his wound. “So you want me to dig that bullet out without anesthetic?”

“I’ll do it,” he said.

“Would you rather?” she asked. “I mean, that’s fine if you would, but I don’t mind doing it, either. It’s sort of-- I mean, at least for me, it’s harder to do that kind of thing for yourself, than to have somebody else do it.”

He stopped and considered that. He didn’t want to put her to trouble, but it would be easier to have someone else inflict that kind of pain, rather than trying to hold his own hand steady through it. And she wasn’t squeamish.

“If you don’t mind--” he said.

She shook her head at him, and dug in a different pouch. “Hang on.”

She produced a little kit, which she unzipped. Tweezers, a little bottle, a roll of cloth wrapped in another roll, and a short, thick leather strap with a buckle at one end. A dog collar?

“Here,” she said, handing him the collar. “Bite down on that.”

Before obeying, he looked at the leather, and saw that there were toothmarks already in it.

“Mine,” she said, following his glance.

He placed the strap in his mouth, between his back teeth, tasting the odd tang of old, tanned skin, and watched her.

She dipped the tweezers into the bottle of liquid, and then held the bottle up and said, “I’m gonna pour this on your wound, son, and it’s gonna sting like hell, OK?”

He nodded. He was familiar with the sting of antiseptic, and it did hurt, but not as badly as it did when she began digging for the bullet.

He was determined not to make a sound that would distress her. The strap did help-- having it to bite down on. He wished he had something similar to clench his fists on.

She didn’t make it worse by being too gingerly, hesitating to hurt him. Her gaze was intent on her work. Blackness swam behind his eyes, but he knew how not to succumb to that.

When he sucked in his breath hard, she said, without looking up, “Almost, sweetheart. Not much more. Just a little--”

Sweetheart. She never called him that. She called Emily that, and Shaun, but not him.

“There,” she said, and he felt the needle pierce his skin, and the sting and itch of the stimpak as it hyperstimulated the healing process. “All done. God, you’re so fucking tough, son. I’m sorry I’m so clumsy.”

He shook his head; she hadn’t been clumsy, he didn’t think. It was a difficult job.

There was sweat on his face, and water in his eyes, and his muscles were stiff. He blinked, and reached up for the leather in his mouth, pulling it free with some little difficulty.

“Good Lord,” she said, looking at the deep toothmarks in the leather.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “For damaging it.”

She smiled at him, the way she did, laughter in her eyes, but not mocking laughter. Gentleness, but not condescension. Joy, in him specifically. Her smile was like warmth on a freezingly cold day, like a cool breeze on a stiflingly hot one; it made him want to move closer, turn his face to catch more of her smile, even though it was already beamingly directed straight at him.

It took her own idiom to express it: he fucking loved her smile.

“You are ridiculous,” she said, and unscrewed her canteen of water, and held it out to him. “You are my ridiculous, awesome son, and the ancient Spartans fucking wish they were as badass as you.”

He didn’t protest that he had his own canteen. It gave her pleasure to share with him, and if she was thirsty, later, he’d offer her his. He drank, deeply.

“Tell me about the Spartans,” he said, handing the canteen back to her. “Please.”

She smiled again. “I mean, I’m not an expert. They were from-- thousands of years before my time. But they were a warrior society, and they had a reputation for being-- incredibly tough. And stoic. They had this training regimen, called the agoge-- it probably wasn’t as hardcore as your training, though. But kind of-- similar ideas, I think. There’s this one story, it might not be true, but it’s about a Spartan boy, who stole a fox?”

She paused, and he nodded; he’d never seen a fox, but as with some other words that were part of his preset vocabulary, he had an image associated with it in his mind: a smallish, reddish animal, a predator, with a sharp face and sharp teeth. Associated with cunning.

“And hid it under his shirt,” she continued, when he’d indicated comprehension. “And it started biting and gnawing him-- actually tearing his guts out-- but he didn’t show any sign he was in pain until it actually killed him. Because it would have been so shameful to show pain-- to give himself away-- that he’d literally rather die.”

He considered that seriously. The idea. How it would feel. How difficult it would be, to keep from showing anything was wrong.

It would depend on how closely someone was watching.

“You relate to that story, I bet,” she said, watching him, no longer exactly smiling, but still with that light of love on her face, and he said, “Why didn’t he kill the animal before he hid it under his shirt?”

She laughed, the laugh that caught her by surprise and made her hiccup for breath.

“Good question!” she said. “I always wondered why he stole it in the first place. I mean, of all the things to shoplift.”

“I’m ready to keep moving, ma’am,” he said, and sat still while she scrambled to her feet and held her hands out to him. He reached up, with both of his, and took her hands-- her warm, hard hands, smaller than his but still strong-- and let her pull him to his feet.