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Programming

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Every Ship's Assistant android had some programming of a medical nature, and ER1-K894 was no exception. But with the medical bay torn open, most of its supplies and equipment spilled into the pitiless cold of space, there was little he could do. He had cleaned and bandaged Charles's injuries, when they finally escaped their attackers, but the infection had set in so quickly, worsening into outright septicemia within days, and nothing Erik did seemed to even slow it down.

On the sixth day, Erik found Charles's quarters empty, and Charles collapsed in the corridor, weak and trembling, his skin dead white but for the blush of fever.

"How long do I have, Erik?" he asked as Erik knelt beside him, checking pulse and temperature, scanning for signs of organ failure. And finding them.

"Your condition has deteriorated much more rapidly than I anticipated. If it continues to decline at the current rate…" The chain of calculations wound to its inevitable conclusion. Briefly, inexplicably, Erik found himself unable to voice the words. Only briefly. "Ten minutes, perhaps twenty."

Charles absorbed this information with a nod, a swallow, something like a laugh. "Will you…" He swallowed again. "Will you stay with me?"

"Yes." Where else, after all, would he go? He seated himself more comfortably beside Charles on the floor. His programming included subroutines for dealing with human distress. Charles might be comforted if Erik touched him.

He wanted Charles to be comforted.

Charles seemed startled by the hand closing over his own, but returned the clasp willingly. "I'm sorry, Erik."

Now it was Erik's turn to be startled. "Why are you sorry?"

"For leaving you here alone."

Erik had never objected to being alone before. It had never mattered to him whether there were people around him or not. But he did not like the thought, suddenly, of Charles not being here while he piloted this vast, empty, echoing ship back to Earth. With their damages engines, the journey would take roughly two years. He had thought they would be together – Charles teasing him, making jokes he didn't understand, asking endless fascinated questions about his perceptions and his programming, standing close enough for Erik's temperature sensors to gauge his body heat, when so many other crew-members did not want to be near him. He had thought they would be together, and instead he would be alone.

Charles was biting his lip, Erik realized, and his body was shaking.

"You would be more comfortable in your quarters," Erik said.

"It hardly seems to matter at this point," Charles said, but he did not protest when Erik picked him up – in fact, he seemed to cling to Erik with what little strength he had left. The subroutine was correct, then, and touch was a comfort.

Charles's quarters had received only a little damage in the attack – books scattered on the floor, shards of glass from the jar of actual Earth seashells Charles had kept on a shelf, a single scorch mark across the bulkhead. The bedsheets were stained. Erik wished he had thought to change them. Surely Charles would have been more comfortable on sheets without rough, ridged patches of dried blood on them.

"Would you like me to fetch you something for the pain?" he asked as he settled Charles gently onto the bed.

"No," Charles said, his hand trailing down Erik's shoulder as if reluctant to let him go. "No, I'd rather… I'd rather you just stay, if I've only got… ten minutes…" He gave another little laugh, more disbelief, Erik thought, than amusement. His breath was coming harder now, each inhalation a trembling effort, doubtless further impeded by the throat-tightening reaction of the tears he was trying to suppress. They made his eyes even brighter, and his lips redder, where he bit at them through the pain.

Erik had wondered since he first saw them, exactly what those lips would feel like, if they would be as soft and warm as they looked. If he was going to find out, it would have to be soon. And touch was comforting, the subroutine reminded him. So he touched.

Charles went still, breath stopping, and Erik withdrew in alarm.

"I'm sorry. What did I do wrong?"

"Nothing. You only surprised me. Nothing wrong, please – please do it again?"

He did, and found that, yes, they were very pleasant to touch. Charles closed his eyes, turned his head to kiss Erik's palm.

Oh. Reviewing Charles's behavior toward him throughout the mission, Erik realized it should have been obvious that Charles was attracted to him. His programming contained guidelines for that situation. He should distance himself from Charles, interact with him only with cool professionalism.

Instead, he laid down beside him on the bed.

"Why – Erik, you don't have to—"

"I know." He put an arm around Charles to pull him closer.

Another disbelieving laugh, that gave way to something more like a sob as Charles pressed himself closer to Erik. "Erik, I don't want to die."

Something clenched in Erik's chest. He quietly started a self-diagnostic scan. "I'm sorry," he said, uselessly. Charles laid a hand on his cheek, stroking with his thumb; Erik immediately copied the sensory files to permanent storage. "Why me?" he asked. His etiquette subroutines suggested this was a poor time for the question, but there would not be a later. From the temperature of Charles's skin, the rate of his pulse, Erik estimated he had seven minutes and twenty seconds until cardiac arrest. "I had not observed courtship behavior between you and any other member of the crew, yet you are more physically attractive than most of them. I believe you could have had any partner you wished. Why would you choose me? You know I am not programmed to love or even feel attraction."

Charles smiled at him, warm and brilliant and broken. "Oh, my friend. There's so much more to you than programming." Hesitantly, his movements jerky as his coordination failed, he moved forward and kissed Erik's lips.

That sensation joined the others in permanent storage where they could never be deleted, even as Erik accessed every file related to kissing that he had ever acquired, intentionally or incidentally, so as to reciprocate as skillfully as possible. He inferred ways to make the kiss seem more tender, more passionate, more loving. He could not feel these things for Charles.

But he could want to.

Eventually Charles pulled back, breathing in shallow, frantic gasps, pulse thready. He had already outlived Erik's estimate by forty-six seconds.

"I don't want to leave you here alone," Charles said.

"You won't," Erik said. "My memories do not grow dimmer with time as yours do. Every time I access them, it will be as if it is happening all over again. All our conversations. Chess, and basketball, and flowers, and drinking, and – and this. I will always have you with me. I will never be alone."

Charles nodded, and tried to smile. He did not have enough breath to speak.

On Earth, with the resources of even a middling-good hospital, Charles would not die. His infection could be treated, his fever cooled, his wounds stitched cleanly together. But they were two long years away from Earth, and none of the cryo-pods were functional anymore. There was nothing Erik could do.

He kissed Charles again, and again, and stroked his hair, until everything – breathing, and trembling, and the spark in his eyes, and finally his pulse – everything stopped.

That moment, too, was inescapably recorded in his memory. Like the chess games and the flowers, it would always be with him.

For thirty-three minutes, Erik did not move. His logic processors kept trying to come at the situation from some angle that would make it more acceptable. They did not succeed.

The self-diagnostic scan informed him it was completed. It had found certain anomalies, possible corrupted code in his programming. A reset was recommended. He declined, and instructed his systems not to offer reset as an option anymore.

He carried Charles's body to storage, placed it in the air-tight container with the few other bodies that had been recovered. Then he started toward the bridge, calling up memory files as he walked. He started at the beginning, the day before launch, when Charles had surprised Erik as he went about his duties with Tchaikovsky on maximum volume.

"I beg your pardon, Professor Xavier. I thought I was alone."

"Oh, no, I'm terribly sorry to interrupt. You must be the Ship's Assistant! I've greatly looked forward to meeting you. Be warned, I'm nosy and persistent and fascinated by androids; I'm afraid you won't be alone much at all as long as I'm around…"

Erik kept the memory playing, and together he and Charles made their way through the vast, dark, silent spaces of the ship.