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Icarus

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Charles was seven years old when his stepfather brought David home.

The David 8, so began the holonet ad Charles watched a week prior, is brought to life with better technological, intellectual, physical and emotional performance than ever before. The eighth generation in cybernetic advancement brought to you by Weyland Corp, the full range of his emotional and empathetic aptitude is made possible by the very latest in robotics.

With his 99% emotional sensitivity level, David 8 can enter seamlessly into any environment and carry out an authentic human interaction. David 8 can understand and respond appropriately to even the most intricate emotional cues or subtly stated verbal commands.

He is polished, practiced, and efficient, by far the most advanced and human-like cybernetic individual on the market today. Discover, explore, and Build Better Worlds with the new David 8.

An unassuming statement in tiny front ran along the bottom, just beneath the smiling face of a test model with aesthetically pleasant features. While David will never grow old or die, read the disclaimer, a David 8 is a machine, and does not have the human capability to appreciate these qualities—they exist in benefit to you.

The David 8 that required several postmen to carry in through the elevator and set down in the foyer, sleek shipment case sliding open with a few strokes across its interface, looked nothing like any David advertised on the networks. This was the first thought that swam through Charles' mind upon seeing the robot for the first time, peeking around his mother's legs while maintaining what he'd already come to learn was a socially acceptable distance.

Kurt Marko looked only vaguely displeased by the sight. He waved off the men without tipping, the tap of his polished shoe ripe with impatience. "It'll do."

Sharon Marko merely sniffed. "I thought these things came custom designed." And the inflection she chose to accentuate the word—things—was nothing short of disdainful. 

"Couldn't find the time, darling. I had it randomized," Charles' stepfather remarked, his attention drawn elsewhere, but then he was already one foot out the door, peeling back his cuff to check the time on his Rolex. Kurt Marko was a businessman foremost, Charles learned early on. Though he was no great scientist, nothing like the late Dr. Xavier in manner nor ethics, he was ruthlessly successful in his own right.

Charles' mother was nowhere near as business-focused, but just as rarely at home as her husband. At the same time that Kurt was halfway out the door, she had gone in search of her coat.

"Have the maid figure out how it turns on," she informed the valet before the sound of her clacking heels followed her into the adjacent room.

Charles, in the meantime, had taken his first cautious steps toward the head of the case, close enough to carefully rove his eyes over the synthetic's slack face and closed eyelids. David fit inside the shipment case much like a doll—its arms lay flat against the sides of its clean-pressed grey uniform, almost unsettlingly lifeless. Charles had just enough time to wonder how a robot was 'turned on', so to speak, when a section of the case slid upward to reveal the iridescent sheen of a holoscreen. A flashing prompt blipped into existence. It read: STARTUP.exe: INSTRUCTIONS.

His mother was long gone by the time Greta, a portly old woman who hardly understood the better mechanics of an automated window-cycle much less the handling of an android, bustled into the foyer looking very harassed, indeed.

As was due the combined Xavier and Marko wealth, the penthouse apartment in which Charles had spent most of his early years in nearly singular residence—if one discounted the sour maid and occasional appearance of the Xavier concierge—was not noticeably ostentatious though no less exorbitant for it. The foyer, for one, was a sensible arrangement of slate black and pale cream marble, minimalist metal fixings interlaced with the luminescent blue of the cybernetic technology that ran along the walls of every room.

When in standby, the only tell that the feature was there at all was a thin strip that followed the apartment layout like a grid. Of course, no one ever thought it prudent to teach a child how to access it; Charles took to the challenge with determination.

Now though, Charles withdrew tentative fingers from the holoscreen that displayed the Weyland Corp logo, and relinquished the task to Greta before she berated him for his assumption.

“Ridiculous,” Greta rasped. “Buying a machine to do a nanny’s job.” Her throat had deteriorated swiftly after her last bout of bronchitis, and since then she hadn’t yet found the money required for re-sequencing treatment.

Charles' mother had one of those, once, when she found a grey hair.

Promptly, the maid stalked over to the spot where Charles had since attempted to seat himself comfortably on the floor. She tilted him a dour look, one perhaps milder than she intended due to the sagging that deep wrinkles tend to lend one's countenance, and tsked. “Stay back, no telling how safe it is.”

Greta motioned him away before setting her hands atop her hips. The perusal she gave the holoscreen was brisk, and she flicked at the screen without the ease of someone well-practiced, prompting a new wall of text to ping into existence. “Liquids need to be changed every sixteen hours, self-automated. No warning as far as I can see...,” she twisted and set a scathing eye on Charles, still tucked dutifully on the floor behind her knees as she toddled about. “Try not to break it,” she warned. “Or your mommy will take it out of my life-savings, yes?”

Greta had worked under the Xavier name for as long as Charles could remember—long before his father died in a lab accident five years previous. She fell into the unfortunate responsibility of looking after Charles more and more often in the time that followed; his own mother had been too occupied with her newfound alcoholism while Xavier Biotics was left to scramble under its newly elected management. Surely it was only logical for his mother to marry the man after a term society saw appropriate.

“There’s no off switch. You just tell it to do things and it does them.” Greta made a face, a tug in the corner of her unkind mouth. “How efficient. I can finally quit.”

She turned on her heels rather quickly, her expression pinching off the very moment she found herself nearly tripping over Charles in the process. Thankfully, she held her sharp tongue; it seemed as the problems that came with her age progressed, she'd begun to mellow out in regards to discipline. Charles twisted his fingers in his lap, nervous and eager both, and did not flinch.

“Well,” the old woman addressed him, pointed. “Aren’t you going to say hello?”

Nodding hastily, Charles pushed to his feet and took a few steps back.

“Um... h-hello.” He wrung his hands, uncomfortable as always in the stiff formalwear that Greta insisted he be dressed in even in the solitude of his rooms. Charles swallowed, throat clicking, and when he spoke again it was clearer, though somehow softer: “Hello, David.”

It was then that David’s eyes opened.

His mother’s earlier sentiments hadn’t been wrong. Clearly, no one would willingly design a robot’s features quite so... beautiful, of course, in that way only an advanced polyurethane skingraft could achieve, but also somewhat frightening in their perfection. Or perhaps the better word would be disquieting. David’s face was angular, hollow cheeks and high-set cheekbones that were reminiscent of a more european influence; pale eyes and a sharply set mouth. It all worked to make him look very serious, really.

And then there was the look David leveled Charles with when he rose to a sitting position—curiously blank.

“Sir,” David greeted serenely. “I am David. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

David’s focus was singular in its regard. He did not move to stand and remained unnervingly still, watching.

Abruptly, Charles found himself short of breath. He decided upon a shy smile first, adjusting his bare feet against the cold tile while he fought the compulsory urge to let his eyes stray to the ground. “Hi,” he said softly. “I’m Charles.”

David blinked. It was alien, Charles thought, catching the subtle adjustment of David’s pupils in the low light.

Then David spoke again: “My programming has registered the owner of my person as Marko, Kurt; CEO of Xavier Biotics. Kurt Marko is not currently in residence of the building.” David said this in a detached manner. The neutrality of his tone suggested his response was scripted into his coding.

“Yes, yes,” Greta interjected, sounding rather cross to be doing so. Her annoyance seemed to have distracted her from that last statement—how strange, that David knew where Kurt wasn’t.

The speed with which David turned his head to regard the maid was disconcerting, but perhaps it was only Charles who thought this; he was hardly used to living humans as it was.

“Mr. Marko is on business and will not be back until late,” Greta supplied.

With perfunctory ease, David rose to his feet and stepped out of the delivery case. His hands folded neatly at his back.

“What are sir’s directives?”

Greta spared Charles a sideways glance. “Charles. That’s your directive. Watch him, clean up after him,” her upper lip twitched, “keep him out of trouble. Mr. Marko will give any further instruction upon his return. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I simply must be going.”

She gathered her things almost too quickly when she started moving. Her purse, another of her carry-ons, and then she left in much the same manner Charles’ parents had. Perhaps it was negligent of her to leave a young child in the hands of a robot so soon after they’d only just met, but even so, David 8s were purportedly high-end, incredibly self-sufficient. Charles knew this from his research. In any manner, he had been left alone before. Charles’ mother had him tested in recent months, and he’d scored somewhere in the range of a twelve and thirteen-year-old’s comprehension level. He was self-sufficient, in a way, just like David.

Charles didn’t say anything for a short stretch of time. His eyes dipped down to the floor and with them he set about tracing the intricate ligature of the tilework. He ruminated on those thoughts—whatever his own deficiency was, which seemed to have every adult foisting him onto the next—until his path brought him up short at David’s shoes.

He cautiously raised his eyes, licked his lips. “What are you doing?”

Charles liked to think his voice less nervous than when he last spoke, not ten minutes before. But there was a tremble of shyness there, a soft-bellied vulnerability, no matter his effort, and it was more likely this show of emotion than anything else that stole David’s attention away from where the robot had been, for all appearances, staring off into space.

David’s eyes flickered down to him, head cocked ever so slightly. “I have just exhausted all knowledge on the care of children that presides within the networks.”

It would explain how David knew of Kurt’s location. If he had access to the networks, he must also have direct access to data stored in the public levels of Xavier Biotics’ systems. How odd, to have what amounted to a computer for a mind.

Charles wrinkled his nose in distaste. “I’m seven,” he said, trying for indignant but failing. And just to have something to say, added, “How old are you?”

“My manufacture date is exactly three days, two hours, and thirty-six minutes ago.” David’s head was still tilted, but as he finished speaking, it reset to something approximating neutral again.

Weyland had a handful of product-review articles available on the networks, many of which mentioned trial tests, situational response variables. They tossed around such jargon as motivation sequences and recognition pathways, components of a David 8’s programming that allow for readily imitating and responding to human behavior. There were failsafes for this, he’d read—default neutral states—that many customers found preferential. The reports that did come back stated that David’s imitations were not as well-received as hoped. Trust, Charles recalled, was the clause most frequently cited. David, apparently, was too good of an imitation to trust.

Charles made sure to let nothing of these thoughts show on his face. “Did you learn anything useful?” he asked next, knowing David would trace the conversation back a step.

It was exciting to watch the robot’s expression change to suit a response. It also made it abundantly clear that this David did not come on his default setting. Charles was glad of this; he noted the preciseness with which David’s face morphed from neutral to assured.

“Yes,” David smiled, something that pulled his lips back enough to reveal a slow measure of teeth, and reminded Charles exactly why he’d believed frightening an apt descriptor for David’s face. The robot closed the space between them in several strides, then asked, in a controlled tone that immediately soothed the last of Charles’ nerves: “Would you like for me to pick you up, Charles?”

His own mother had not so much as touched Charles since he was a baby, if she ever did at all—but from what he remembered of Brian Xavier, his father was more inclined for it. Since that time though, it wasn’t as if Greta would ever consider offering as much.

Charles' answer was immediate, a spreading ache of yes now please in his chest that he could hardly find the words to voice. Instead, he hastily raised his arms. It was all too easy to let David scoop him up, to tuck his head into the dip of the robot’s neck and wipe sleepily at his runny nose.

David’s uniform carried the faint scent of sterilizing soap and warm plastic. When the robot didn’t immediately move, Charles began to drift, and it was enough, really, that he was too drowsy to fuss by the time he registered the steady press of David’s palm down the curl of his back.

“I will look into medicine for that cold,” David spoke, an undetectable waver in his vocal machinations, shuffling settings he had not yet familiarized himself with, and his voice grew deceptively soft. “In the meantime, I believe a nap is in order.”

The ache in Charles’ chest had bled out, softened. Strange people he’d never met said a David couldn’t be trusted, but for now, at least, he found he very much wanted to.

David’s palm skated down his back again, and Charles could hardly resist the dreamless sleep that followed.