"When first Al Aaraf knew her course to be
Headlong thither o'er the starry sea."
-Edgar Allan Poe, "Al Aaraf"
By the time UEC Nephthys was deployed for the Sirius mission, Ship's Assistant 131-7-142119YRK had been operative for 17.36 years, and had served aboard the deep space research vessel for just as long. He was a Weyland Industries David 8 model-- tall, as they all were, blue eyes, sandy hair and chiseled features standard. At the time of release, his EROS system had been the most sophisticated on the market. Ad campaigns had touted his line as 'blurring' the distinction between human and machine and, in a way, they did. Weyland's Public Relations department had labored long and hard over how to make the David 8 as commercially attractive as possible, without tripping into any of those pesky 'sentient's rights' or 'organic sovereignty' issues. 131-7-142119YRK was one of many, many units produced from the David 8 blueprint, though he had never met another android like himself. The Office of Technological Asset Control very carefully monitored and limited the ratio of androids to humans, on all outposts within the solar system. He had been addressed many ways from the outset-- the first crew of the Nephthys tried calling him something retro and cutesy like 'One-Three-Are-Kay', but it never stuck. He was called 'Ship's Assistant', 'Mr. Steward' and 'Bellhop'-- usually depending on the particular human's feelings about synthetic lifeforms. 'David' seemed like the logical choice, but that was the name of his model. Ordinary citizens might not interact with androids very frequently, but the scientists and spacers who came through the Nephthys _did_, and they found the appellation too confusing.
Salt-spacers-- the old breed of working class stiff that had been risking their necks in space since before artificial gravity-- called him 'Robbie'. 131-7-142119YRK represented the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, capable of interpreting and responding to human emotions. He could perhaps (it had not been conclusively proven) experience the faintest of rudimentary emotions himself. This in no way made his system capable of housing something as powerful as love, or hate, or regret.
(He really hated being called 'Robbie'.)
131-7-142119YRK called himself 'Erik'. Perhaps that ought to have been an indication of hazards ahead, but no one really noticed. By the the time the Nephthys was on her second mission, everyone just assumed 'Erik' had picked up his name from some wise-ass who'd come before. That is was his own idea never occurred to them and, of course, no one ever asked. Despite more than a decade's passing, he was still considered very sophisticated. EROS (Emotional Response Operating Systems) technology had ground to a stand-still in the intervening years, while Weyland Industries battled several lawsuits regarding intellectual property and ethics violations.
Erik had no complaints in his file, and mission-ratings that ranged from 'very satisfactory' to 'considerably efficient'. He had received only two coaching calibrations, both for 'emotionally distressing' crew members under his care.
(They said he was 'really creepy'.)
ERYK-- as he considered himself in the privacy of his own subroutines-- was aware that he could, at times, make his human charges feel uncomfortable. He had made several adjustments to his behavioral response protocols, in an effort to compensate. 'Creepy' or not, the feelings of the crew had never reached the point where distaste or anxiety had expressed itself as a verbal or physical confrontation. He bore the light (and not-so) hearted jabs of his human makers-- the snide remarks, the cliched puns, and sometimes more vicious attempts to demean-- as though he noticed them not at all. It was the prevailing opinion among humans that androids, for all their massive data storage space, did not have long 'emotional' memories. And anyway, in the end they were still very much appliances, and the verbal abuse was a way to let off steam. The way consumers had once vented their frustrations on wait-staff and service personnel. It was just one of those things.
More than fifteen years after rolling off the production line, the Ship's Assistant was in no danger of being replaced. He was refurbished and updated for the Sirius mission, but remained intact. Weyland Industries acknowledged that all Davids, in their efforts to understand and interpret humans, could be perceived as disconcerting in their affect (or lack thereof).
As with all David 8's, 131-7-142119YRK's incorruptible core programming made him practical, inquisitive, and a keen observer of any and all patterns around him. He was designed to mentally withstand long periods of isolation in space, to value new artifacts and information, and even empowered with a few basic creative capabilities. He was definitely a scientist's robot-- programmed to protect and preserve all discoveries, in so far as that did not interfere with what Weyland Industries somewhat snidely referred to as the 'Asimov Code'. He was disinclined to impose, eloquent when he did speak, and _very_ discrete.
The Nephthys mission was headed by archaeologist Dr. Moira McTaggart and crypto-geneticist Dr. Brian Xavier, with support from other multidisciplinary researchers like Sebastian Shaw and Hank McCoy. Xavier, recently widowed and a _very_ vocal proponent of panspermia, was considered a bit of a maverick choice for Weyland, but he was clearly the very best in his field. He brought with him a young, quiet and thoroughly sweet son named Charles.
Erik-- listed in the manifest as 131-7-142119YRK; cargo, rather than crew-- didn't stand a chance.
* * * * * * * * *
"How long have you been on the Nephthys?"
Erik is not capable of being startled, but he does note the incident as somewhat unusual. It is rare a human can approach him without detection. Upon turning, he can immediately see why. A pair of pale, bare feet register in his vision centers, little pink toes apparently unmoved by the cold deck. The android actually has to crane his neck to look up-- this new human is standing at the top of the galley steps, leaning over the railing and regarding the Ship's Assistant with luminous blue eyes.
"I am the Nephthys' steward," he tells the newcomer. Judging by body-mass, height and vocal range, he appears to be a caucasian male of approximately twelve years of age. Erik continues, employing tone-gentling sub-routines designed for his rare interactions with children. "As such, I have always been aboard this vessel." His own eyes (selection GE14, 'Abyss Green') flicker downward again. "Where are your shoes?"
"So, I guess you were onboard when Dr. Stark's team observed the Eta Carinae transition?" A winning smile from his young guest, though the boy blatantly refuses to comment on the matter of footwear.
"I was." Still not surprise, but perhaps a reevaluation of the slim form before him. The Eta Carinae transition to supernova made enormous waves in the scientific community as the most closely observed event of its kind. Aside from a brief news blip, it had been of little interest to the ultra-neon, stream-lined majority population, many of whom trended by the nano-second.
"Was it very beautiful?" Those bare feet are on tip-toes now, the skinny form leaning further over the railing. "I saw a multi-spectrum composite image, but I can't imagine what it would look like in the visual range, even at a distance of light-years. I read that Stark's shielding had to take into account the gamma--"
"You will injure yourself," the Ship's Assistant cautions, placing his own hands on the rail and taking a few steps upward. "Please put both feet on the floor." The boy does, but he continues to blink expectantly at Erik with his statistically anomalous blue eyes.
"So, was it?" The young boy prompts after a moment.
"It was… very visually arresting," Erik agrees mildly. It had been-- though the distance required to maintain safety meant that no movement could be detected, the arch and swirl of gas and other ejecta reached an almost mathematical elegance, with colors in such fine optical gradations that the android can honestly say he'd seen a few shades for the very first time.
Instead of bursting forth with another set of questions or sentence fragments, the boy tilts his head to the side, silent as he calmly appraises Erik, before finally smiling. "Yes," he says, nodding to himself. "I can see that it was." It is then that the galley lights catch on the small, indigo-blue tag affixed to the cartilage of the human's ear. As small as a poppy seed, but utterly damning in its brilliance and vivid dye. A telepath, then. Tilting his chin up fractionally, the boy thrusts forward a small hand.
The name is announced boisterously, and with enough pride that even Erik can detect it. He looks at the proffered hand, and then at the metallic tag, trying to decide if there are correlating variables, or if he should also factor in youth. In all his time functioning, Erik has been greeted in many ways-- most of them thinly veiling discomfort or aggression-- but he has never been offered the thoughtless ritual humans seem to eager to exchange with each other.
"I am a robot," he says finally. Gentle, his EROS reminds him-- the boy is young and not fully socialized.
"It's a good job, that," Charles' smile broadens. "Otherwise you couldn't be the Ship's Assistant." His hand remains where it is, fingers relaxed and curled slightly inward. "A human brain could never handle so much input. I had this scale-model brain made of organic vegetable material, only my sister started playing with the charge I was applying, and she overloaded it." He leans forward a little-- Erik's sophisticated sensors detect subvocal laughter. "There were veggie brains _everywhere_."
"I am called Erik," the android says at last. He is holding the small, warm hand in a careful grip-- firm, as his programming suggests, to imply trustworthiness. His synthetic brain is, in many ways, a copy of his human creators'. As such, he does not need to consciously make a decision for every action.
He doesn't remember deciding to take this boy's hand.
"Spectacular!" Charles praises, in a tone obviously picked up from listening to socializing adults. It's somehow charming anyway, as if Erik is supposed to be in on some joke. "Can I see the files from Eta Carinae? I mean, whatever's declassified? My dad has higher clearance--"
"Charles!" It's a feminine voice, echoing off the corridor from whence the boy would have come. A moment later, a young woman stomps loudly onto the stairway scaffolding in a pair of impossible green heels. "Honestly, Charles!" she says, throwing up her hands. The lights catch on her pop-glass rings and glittery nail polish, but her ears are utterly unmolested and bare. She's blond, little to no physical resemblance to the boy, with a streak of emerald in her hair and attractive-if-enthusiastic eye makeup. "I found your shoes up on C Deck!"
"Thank you?" Charles makes it a tentative question, widening his eyes in a way Erik knows most humans find to be 'cute'. He's still holding the android's hand, the other perched on the railing. Leaning over, he informs Erik in a stage whisper, "That's my sister, Raven."
"Your sister of impeccable taste and amazing forbearance," Raven corrects him. Her gaze finally slides over Erik, and moves away just as fast. "You'll have three weeks to bother the Ship's Assistant. Daddy wants to go out to dinner before I leave." Which explains the sleek, peridot-gold stola clinging to her athletic form.
At this point, Erik should quietly disengage and tend to one of the many pre-launch tasks that will consume his existence for the next three weeks. When he tries to take a deferential step backwards, he realizes the boy's grip on his hand has evolved into them being pressed against each other's sides.
"I don't want to go to dinner," Charles sighs. "I don't want you to leave."
"Technically, _you're_ the one leaving. The planet, the solar system." Raven reminds him, rolling her eyes.
"Yes, but…" Another heavy exhalation of air and, whatever Raven sees in his upturned face, it makes her own expression soften towards the boy.
"Hey," she says quietly, reaching out a hand. "I won't leave until we talk about it." After a moment, her tone resumes its former brightness. "But you're not even dressed!" She tugs at him, effectively leaving Erik on the opposite end, trying to free his hand without injuring his human companion.
"This is Erik!" Charles himself finally lets go, reaching up to tug on the grey sleeve of the Assistant's uniform. "He's going to show me pictures of the Eta Carinae explosion!"
"I'm sure he will," she pats her brother's auburn hair affectionately. Still no move to acknowledge the android, though that is by no means unusual. "Come along."
"Bye, Erik!" the boy waves over his shoulder. "I'll see you when I get back."
Erik does not wave in return. He does not call out to the boy, either, as it is obvious the older sister would prefer he make his presence as unobtrusive as possible. If he hesitates for .67 seconds before turning back towards his rounds, it is only because the incident involved somewhat atypical interactions. He does not have a great deal of experience with children, and all his files suggest the one he just met is unusually intelligent. Nephthys' main database has been fully outfitted with all the necessary personnel information, and he accesses it with the ease of involuntary muscle movement.
Charles Francis Xavier. Fourteen, according to his records, and already causing stirs of interest from think-tanks and education specialization centers. He is scathingly intelligent-- a prodigy who no longer attends formal schooling with his peers. Taking children-- or adolescents-- on long deep-space missions is usually frowned upon, but Brian Xavier seems to have secured permission to do so in exchange for his own highly sought-after services. Charles is listed as being in the elder Xavier's custody, and a ward of Weyland Industries in the unlikely event something should go wrong. An Omega class telepath, as the ear-tag suggested, on a high dose of suppressants. The stunning amount of Hapaxam ordered for this journey suddenly makes a great deal of sense. If the other members of the crew don't know they'll be sharing the Nephthys with a telepath, they will very shortly, and they will all what to be reassured that he is Null.
An unusually smart, talented child isolated from his contemporaries. A boy with what many in the human population classify as a 'disability'. Studies suggest that highly intelligent children are sometimes emotionally delayed-- Erik considers this a likely reason that the boy would be so engaging and friendly with a being most around him ignore completely. It is of little consequence. Charles Xavier will be one of seventy-five people under the android's care in the coming months and years. While fragile, children are also highly adaptable, and Charles will surely find himself a more suitable human to consort with on the ship. Erik may experience a few days of slightly lowered productivity if the boy really is as enthusiastic as he seems, but it will pass.
After all, even adult humans have notoriously short attention spans.
Except, of course, that's not the way it works out.