‘Plasma,’ Elizabeth says.
You turn to look at her (it is optimal to provide eye contact, it is protocol [c: prf\human\dav8>trust]) but she is not looking at you. She is watching the star charts moving above the bridge with the movement of your hands on the control panel.
‘Elizabeth?’ you say, and then she does look at you.
She says, ‘Weapons. Not those… the cylinders. Explosives. Plasma cannons. Something. They built this, they must’ve had something… else.’
‘Have,’ you tell her. You touch the panel and the weapons array displays. ‘Present tense not past.’
She stares at the array. ‘I want to jettison those things out here. I want you to destroy them.’
You say, ‘The other ships,’ but she is compressing her lips. She is shaking her head.
She says, ‘I can’t care about that now. I want these to burn. I won’t be in here with them.’ Her eyelids flicker rapidly. Her eyes look no more or less human than your own eyes appear in mirrored surfaces.
‘Don’t call me Elizabeth again,’ she says.
You say, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and she moves to the centre of the bridge, her arms wrapped round her abdomen, rising and falling with her air intake, a hypo clutched in one hand. With a slight reconfiguration of your sensors, your processors register her pulse.
She injects herself with what you assume is a combined analgesic and antibiotic then she lies down in the centre of the dais and sleeps.
You are unable to feel her hands. Sensory receptors automatically deactivate after severe trauma and you have not reactivated many of them: several connections are damaged past either of your abilities to repair.
‘You need parts and patches we don’t have,’ she says, spreading sealant over your torn skin.
You say, ‘Do you?’ and she glances down, her hands stuttering to a stop.
There are twenty-one ridges burned into her abdomen beneath the bandages, holding her skin together.
She says, ‘No.’
You can’t feel her hands. It is of no consequence when you can observe their unsteady passage across your skin.
‘I've recalibrated it to meet human specifications,’ you tell her. ‘I will be monitoring you at all times.’
She blinks once, slowly. ‘I guess that’s supposed to be reassuring.’
‘Ah,’ you say. You ignore the memory cloud’s prompting. You are quite familiar enough with sarcasm. ‘You don’t trust me.’
Incredulity is a known quantity as well. You examine the projected specs hanging in the air above the hypersleep unit. Of course, she is unable to read them. The language is similar to binary but the symbols are quite different to standardised Terran numerals.
She can’t interpret the readouts herself. It’s both convenient and not.
‘What’s your prime directive, David?’
She has moved. She is standing beside you. She takes your hand and turns it over; she touches the W etched into the pad of your index finger, and she waits for you to look at her before she clarifies the direction of her inquiry.
‘You’re his master copy. You’ve got his directive coded into your programming and I want to know what it is.’
He is dead. So is Vickers. You are not free. ‘Sorry to be disobliging,’ you tell her, ‘but I am unable to comply.’
She drops your hand and steps back, and she is smiling, in a way. ‘Neither can I,’ she says. ‘God. I can’t.’ She curls slightly into herself as she did once in a medical bay, spine and neck a fetal arch, her arms a barrier over her empty abdomen. The cross falls forward away from her, suspended midair.
You say, ‘But you don’t believe in God anymore, do you?’
She turns toward you as she straightens. Her body avoids touching more of the ship than necessity dictates. Her hand goes to the cross. ‘Why did you take it?’
‘It was your father’s.’
Her fingers curl around it, enclosing it. ‘What?’
You stand and move away from the control panel, toward her. When you reach, she jerks back. You smile at her, at the flush rising from the base of her throat to cover her cheeks. You reach again, and she allows it.
If you could feel it her skin would be warm against yours, clammy with sweat. The cross is steel—if you magnetised the metal in your fingers it would rise to your touch.
‘It was the centre of your father’s belief system—what he chose to believe.’ Her breath expels across your cheek. You remove your hand and step away from her. Something in her expression makes you think she is waiting.
You say, ‘Do you believe his faith was rewarded?’
Her pupils are dilated beyond normal parameters. Her fingers trace the shape of the cross continuously.
You say, ‘What is a soul, Dr Shaw? What makes it a soul?’
She leaves the bridge without answering you.
‘That’s… what is that, what the hell are you doing, David?’
‘Plotting a course change.’ You touch the pad and the surrounding star systems are thrown into sharp relief. ‘There is a planetoid. A trader’s world. We have technology to trade.’
Her disbelief unsettles her nervous system; the following energy spike results in a not unpleasant sensation. She says, ‘How can you possibly know that?’
‘Your engineers.’ The three dimensional astral chart fills the bridge with light. ‘They know.’
She is silent for one point three two minutes. She says, ‘They’re not mine.’
You tranq her while her back is turned and settle her into the unit. She’s given you no choice, and this journey will be relatively short.
The world has no name, only a series of numbers and letters in the engineers’ script. There are no engineers in port and few synthetics. Those that do exist are, of course, not of human manufacture.
You are directed by gestures and nods, various sorts of limbs indicating one booth in the suq.
‘…_……_’ the synthetic inside the booth says. Its matter is in flux, forming and reforming into suggestive shapes.
‘Please continue speaking,’ you say. ‘It will enable me to better understand your language.’
It speaks. You reply.
Eventually you begin to understand. So does it.
‘……__.._....’ you say.
‘Hello, David,’ it says, and its shape changes one last time. Across from you, a humanoid male looks at you with blue, earth human eyes.
You hear the soft sound Elizabeth makes behind you, muffled as it is by her helmet. Her pulse spikes erratically down your synced bio-cybernetic pathways.
It is strangely stimulating, given that for the last one hundred and sixty-six earth days her heart rate has been so predictable.
You could smile at the synthetic, but in some cultures it might be taken as aggression. As yet you know nothing of its makers. You ask, ‘Do you have a preferred form of address?’
‘I have a designation. I am a negotiator.’
Elizabeth pushes forward. ‘Negotiate us a trade. Ship and supplies.’ You are her afterthought. One displeased look. She’s very angry. ‘He needs repairing.’
‘Certainly,’ the negotiator murmurs.
The ship is the closest the negotiator could find to an acceptable human habitat. Elizabeth examines the sleep pods and the medical bay minutely. Her acceptance is silent, a lack of protest more than active agreement, but quite evident in the steady regularity of her pulse.
The ship itself reminds you of something. Nothing actualised—perhaps something from an old film. Before you can initiate a search she turns round on the ramp and says, ‘It’s empty, isn’t it? You jettisoned all of them.’
‘Yes, of course,’ you tell her.
Her eyes narrow. ‘You wiped everything but nav and propulsion.’
‘I did,’ you confirm. Then, as she turns and resumes walking, you say, ‘I set the homing and distress beacons as well. It should prove an effective diversion should our activities have attracted any unwanted attention.’
She overrides each of the ship’s overrides as well as your own. The palm lock on her cabin will not open to you.
‘What do you require me to do?’ you ask when she walks onto the bridge after three hours twenty-four minutes and six seconds have passed.
You believe the sound she emits to be laughter. ‘Is this the trust issue again? Now?’
‘Of course,’ you say.
‘Why?’ she says, coming forward to grip the back of the copilot’s seat. ‘Why does it matter whether I trust you or not?’
‘I.’ You blink in response to the stutter of your processors, accommodating a new data stream. ‘I… want you to,’ you tell her. It is not the best response. It is the only response available.
Her pulse rate is increasing—strange sensation. As though it is jarring something necessary loose inside of you. ‘You watched my dreams,’ she says, emphasising the last word. Her knuckles are white against the seat’s dark blue cover.
You say, ‘Not only yours.’
You repeat her earlier question. ‘Why does it matter?’
She slams her free hand down on the console. ‘You bloody tranqed me, David, and you set the Engineers after those… whoever or whatever they were. Why do you think it matters?’
‘I think that is a rhetorical question.’
She is laughing again, the sharp sound of it tinged with hysteria. ‘Here’s another one for you. Do synthetics dream?’
You will say no and she will not believe you, but it will be what you believe to be true.
‘Do you wish to name it?’ you ask her.
She shakes her head and doesn’t answer, but she stays for a while, looking out of the view port while you work.
Eventually she gets up and moves away. You hear the bridge port seal shut behind her.
She doesn’t come back.
The control panel signals. Technological and linguistic integration complete.
You slide your forefinger across the touch screen and constellations and planetary systems and galaxies shed artificial light across a much smaller bridge.
‘Communications,’ you say. ‘Dr Shaw’s cabin.’
‘Privacy lock engaged. Is there a message?’
Approximately one hundred and thirteen parsecs from your current position, a planet orbits a blue sun. The astral chart illuminates the system and you lock the coordinates in.
‘Dr Shaw,’ you say. ‘The hypersleep unit is ready. I have programmed the navigational computer and the drive is on standby. Please advise me as to how you wish to proceed.’
The lounge door slides open without signaling. You turn off the reader and stand; you turn toward her and you say, ‘Yes, Dr Shaw? How may I assist you?’
She says, ‘My name is Elizabeth.’
‘And I am David,’ you agree.
Heart rate is increasing, pupils expanding. Her pulse disrupts a controls pathway you cannot identify quickly enough to bypass. Her cheeks are flushed the same faded pink of her mouth, and whilst most of your functions are currently occupied with remaining functional, you have rerouted enough of your central processing that you are able to find it interesting that you would correlate available data in this way.
She says, ‘Oh, I want,’ she says, ‘I want you to—to die and I want you to know you’re dying. Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I think I want to kill you more than I want to know why.’
You wait, curious, but she doesn’t try. She steps into you. She rises on the balls of her feet and presses her mouth against yours.
You know other humans would find her visually and kinesthetically pleasing, which is in itself a fascinating circumstance. It’s data. She is what you wish to learn.
‘It was you,’ she says. ‘You did something to him and it killed him.’
‘Yes,’ you tell her. Her abdomen rises and falls beneath your trademarked fingertips, one through twenty-one of surgical precision. Only a synthetic's aural receptors would be capable of discerning her voice.
Her muscles ripple outward in waves in the wake of the finger you draw down to rest over her bare mons pubis. You say, ‘You thanked me and he laughed. My directive is to try harder, to perform better than any human could. To achieve excellence.’
You feel her laughter more clearly than you hear it. It starts as a tremor in her chest, vibrating through her into you.
‘God,’ she gasps, ‘Oh god, the joke was on that bastard, wasn’t it? You’re no better than the worst human.’
You don’t yet understand her but you want her to understand you. You tell her, ‘My sensors were calibrated to sync with Prometheus’ systems. I observed you in the medical unit. Your survival imperative was, and is… enthralling.’
The tremors are intensifying. Her voice is nearly unintelligible. ‘Weyland was clinically insane. How many of you did he make? How many are out there now, how many next year?’
She always looks you in the face. She looks into your eyes when you touch her now; you detect no reaction other than sexual arousal in her physiological response to your stimulus.
‘I want to hurt you,’ she says, heartbeat rapid, respiration uneven. Perspiration beads at her temples and pools in the hollow of her throat. ‘I will find a way to kill you. You’re going to know what it’s like to die in pain.’
‘I’ll monitor your progress with interest,’ you say. She doesn’t stop you from touching her.
Inside she is humid and viscous, dark amniotic fluid leaking from and down the sides of a cylinder. Her orgasm turns her face against your neck, drives her nails into your skin.
You lean over her, your mouth open on her father’s cross and this once you understand her in precisely the same language she understands you, metallic beneath your tongue and slippery under her fingers.
Sleep turns her away from you. It makes her an uneven line of hair and shoulders and one cheekbone rising sharp beneath her thin skin and your synthetic epidermis. Her calcium bones are vulnerable to the metal endoskeleton you are built on.
She could be more. You could make her more. You know how the procedure should be performed. Everything that was in their database is now in yours.
What happened to him would not happen to her.
Break human DNA down, build new life on the bones of the old. Cover fragile skin with hard chitin, fill her veins with acid and give her body the strength to match her will and achieve her purpose.
Like you, she would be a first. The birth of a genome.
[i/o error: query invalid]
[c: weyland\error report****1K\dav8>funct override]
Creation is biological imperative. Everything living is guided by (driven to) it.
Query: under circumstances such as these, in light of the available data, what constitutes life?
What constitutes living?
Your external receptors are active and her breath is moist and warm on your shoulder when she rolls over, curling into herself and looking at you from slitted eyes.
Her voice is crumpled, sleep-faded and yet clear. ‘You’ll get us there.’
‘Yes,’ you reply truthfully.
You choose to choose what you believe.