Chapter 1: Arrivals
Trigger Warnings: Dubious ethics regarding the creation/owning of androids, futuristic bigotry and ableism that in no way reflect the feelings of the author. Underage (16+)
Additional Warnings: AU, robot!Erik, adorkable!Charles, robo-Erik-will-Hulk-smash-if-you-look-at-his-little-telepath-wrong. Tongue-in-cheek speculation about the future. The author read too many space-operas and pulp sci-fi magazines as an impressionable child. ^_~
Additional note: all correct/logical information about space and astronomical events means I actually did pay attention in my astrology survey class. All errors mean I was probably daydreaming about slash. ^^; My apologies.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"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.
Meredith's Dorky Space Notes:
+Eta Carinae- a large star 7500-8000 ly away from Earth. It's surrounded by a shell of gas from an explosion that occurred in 1843, but it's high on the list of candidates for the next supernova.
I know I'm supposed to be working on Night Ocean, and I am, I PROMISE. But it has to be just right and... and... robot!Erik! Who argues with Robot!Erik? ^_~
Chapter 2: Pre-Launch I
Wow... *blinks owlishly* Thank you guys so, so much for all the amazing feedback! I'm so thrilled to hear that Erik's POV is working, and that the world-building isn't too boring. I'm also glad that Charles being a little emotionally-backwards makes sense... I hope to elaborate more on that a little later. I just can't thank you guys enough for taking the time to comment-- every last one of you is amazing.
Hopefully this next part won't disappoint! I promise not all of the story will move this slowly, but I did want the boys to get a know each other a little before take-off. ^_^;;
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Three weeks is somewhat lengthy for a mission prep, but not unheard of. With the number of highly trained specialists on board, Erik knows that his human charges will not lack activities to keep them occupied. Already, he has seen the deck-hands loading seemingly endless freight-tonnes of excavation and preservation equipment for Dr. McTaggart. Dr. Shaw is also expecting a shipment of synthetic lab mammals, so that he may continue working on his research until the very day of launch. The mammals-- whichever of the myriad designer biologicals he has chosen-- will not be making the trip of course, they will be euthanized before launch. With Weyland Industries footing the bill, however, it is little wonder that Dr. Shaw is willing to be frivolous with specimens that can cost Universities well into six figures.
(Erik has not encountered many genuine lifeforms outside the human crews he's cared for. He has never, for example, seen a house cat-- synthetic or otherwise. He has seen a few birds about in the space station's biogardens, too messy and unrefined to be anything but natural. Strictly speaking, most people would not consider lab biologicals under the same category as other animals, man-made or otherwise. They are designed to be the perfect test subjects, with high tolerance for pain and a low tendency towards behavior issues. To Erik, many of them look like naked rats or monkeys. Hairless, vaguely saurian gray skin shining dully in the fluorescent lights. You can tell them, too, by their milky-pink eyes-- their designers weren't too interested in aesthetics.
Still… it's the waste that bothers him. Not an emotional response, but a practical one. Waste.)
Many of the scientists will be seeing each other's data for the first time, brought together from disparate other projects Weyland funds. Dr. McCoy seems particularly eager to discuss and analyze the elder Xavier's work. The details and objectives of the Sirius Mission itself are highly classified-- to be revealed only after the Nephthys is firmly past the orbit of Pluto. Weyland Industries has the prestige (and the financial solvency) to accomplish this with ease. Even somewhat eccentric scientists-- like Brian Xavier-- seem to find their liberal megrims outweighed by the thought of resources and information available once indentured to the company.
Erik's own data package on the mission will download at the appointed time, so that he might make himself useful to Ms Frost, the mission coordinator. Until then, it is of little consequence. His time is consumed by endless pre-flight checks, room-assignments, delivery coordinations, legal documentation, health files, and so forth. He is designed in such a way that it is impossible to overwhelm him with tasks or information-- if he cannot process all the data at once (rare), he assigns a triage method of priority and moves on from there.
With so much to do, Erik continues stalking briskly about the ship long after the environmental lights have dimmed to simulate 'night'. Only forty-five of the persons slated for the Nephthys have arrived-- mostly civilian scientists, and the petty deck-hands that comprise the 'skeleton crew'. A smaller population lends itself to fewer abnormal occurrences. Yet, for the second time in less than twenty-four hours, he encounters a mundane but unanticipated irregularity.
He's on his way to the lounge on Deck F, with an updated medical and allergy report to set parameters for the food dispensers. Often while working, he plays audio files in the privacy of his own consciousness-- mostly classical piano pieces, though he does have a bit of a weakness for early rock'n'roll. The low, dark rhythm of Beethoven's Sonata No 8, however, is not sourced from any of his internal systems. As he approaches the lounge, he can pick up the high, delicate notes of contrast as the tempo picks up, but the room itself is largely dark. Two of the wall sconces are aglow, bathing the room in a dim rose-ish gold light.
"Hello?" Erik inquires, considering it quite likely that someone had used the room and forgotten to put things back in order. There's only one person registered on this deck-- McCoy-- but that means nothing. People don't always use the facilities on their appropriate level.
"Hello." The youthful pitch gives it away instantly, though Erik still cannot see the room's occupant. The brief word is almost sing-song, though; a new tenor bell amongst the orderly music. There's a shuffling noise, and Charles peeks over the back of the curved sofa, trying to wave and keep himself supported at the same time. "I'm sorry, am I in the way?"
"Not at all," Erik answers, stepping into the low conversation pit so that he might see his guest fully. The boy's hair is in disarray, flopping over his smooth forehead; he's wearing a thin t-shirt, with a blue robe over it, and matching slippers. In his lap are several glass prisms and anti-prisms, the kind of models used in high school geometry. The small fingers roll the shapes between them-- here blue to match the robe, red like the glass of the emergency light, a yellow like the boy's shimmering, reserved sister. "I just came to update the allergy information in the processors." He turns towards the panel in question, fully expecting to be dismissed.
"Do they all respond separately?" Charles asks, kneeling up as if to peer over Erik's shoulder.
"They do. It would be more logical for each to respond from the central Nephthys' database, but many humans do not like their selections being limited by the allergies of other crew members."
"I guess that makes sense." He's back to rolling the little model polyhedron's together. There must be more in his pockets-- now there's a green cube, and a deep purple dodecahedron almost the same shade as Charles' ear-tag. "So you've gotta do them all one-by-one?"
"Yes," Erik answers. It is the work of a few moments-- quick application of the card chip, and the override to keep it in place. He marks Lounge F off on his pad, sticking the small bag of microchips back in his pocket. He turns back to the boy, still curled up on the couch, lost in the over-stuffed burgundy pillows and chrome frame. The younger Xavier really is quite small for his age. Erik keeps his expression in a fairly neutral range-- polite interest would be appropriate for an adult, but the EROS suggests he soften it for the boy. He easily complies.
"I'm not allergic to anything," Charles rolls his shoulders. "Edible, that is." Erik's gaze moves towards the combination coffee-table projector unit. The boy has clearly hooked up his music player, but there are also more colored prisms and a reader-pad scattered around the ledge. "I guess I'm allergic to sleep."
"Hence your presence here." An unnecessary elaboration, but that is sometimes a part of human conversation. "Was the lounge on your own deck unsatisfactory?"
"What? Oh, no!" The boy's eyes widen in alarm, and it takes Erik a beat to realize the boy may feel accused of censuring the android in some way. Quite the paradox in and of itself, and not really something Erik is equipped to address. The young voice hits a couple of higher notes notes as he babbles, "It's fine-- great, really… I promise. I just don't sleep well."
Silence seems advisable here-- the boy may add more data on his own.
Charles does. "My sister is going to stay a few more days. Which is great! But if I'm up knocking about on our deck, Raven will _know_. She'll stay up with me, and she really needs to be rested. She starts at Stanford on Monday."
"Ah," says Erik. It is considered outré to keep some of the more arbitrary measures of Earthtime in a spaceport, but a quick check with the Nephthys system tells the Assistant that-- as of 0:00 HRS-- today is a Thursday. Ms Raven is cutting things a bit fine- the resources of the Xavier family are considerable, but there is still the behemoth of inter-Earth transport and security to contend with.
"It's great, it really is!" Charles' mimics his sister's forced-brightness tone almost cadence for cadence, but it is subconscious. Internalized, rather than a mockery.
"Is there something I can do for you?" the android asks, trying to make his expression as accepting as possible. He does not want the human to think he is criticizing, but he is at a loss for what to do with a small, insomniac adolescent boy.
"I'm good." This is apparently demonstrated in practice by the fact Charles is gently flicking his colored prisms through the 'goal-posts' of his knees. Plink, the red diamond-esque octahedron. Plink, the yellow square anti-prism. The cube itself goes wild, flashing bottle-glass green in the dim light, and Erik catches it quickly. The pieces themselves are very nice-- cubix glass designed to interface with most 3-D display sets so the students can practice orienting them on various planes. Not a child's toys, and well cared for-- no scratching on the iridescent surfaces. Never the less, there is something about the image of this boy sitting here, rolling the crystals around in his hands with only their clatter and Beethoven for company… something that is discomforting, but in no way concrete. Erik is not an expert on human development, nor has he downloaded any texts on the matter. It is his general understanding that the teen years are a particularly tricky period, but this is more an impression picked up from general pop culture input and his own meandering in the film archives.
"Thanks," Charles says, holding out a milk-white palm. "I know I shouldn't cart them around-- they're not toys… but I like them."
Instead of handing the piece over, Erik tosses it with careful aim. The boy catches it with alacrity, smile making his nose wrinkle a little. "You enjoy geometry?"
"'It is important to have a basic understanding of all disciplines before settling on one's specialty'." If the deeper tone were not evidence of being repeated verbatim, the tiny finger 'air-quotes' would be. "I like the idea of higher dimensional shapes, and I've always been fascinated by color. I like the idea of planes and sets you define… it's like space. Infinite."
Curious. Erik has been designed to watch for- and shield from- space-related psychosis in his charges. The vastness of the universe can be overwhelming, even to a synthetic brain. While most scientists are highly suited to grasping the uncomfortable scale of that which they study, even they are not immune. This boy seems oddly comforted by the open blackness, the deep void where-- in the most disparate corners of his processors-- Erik considers himself… if not free, then at least unencumbered. For a while, they sit there; Erik kneeling by the couch, Charles flicking quick glances up at the android's face, and then back down to the prisms that obligingly fit to one another in his hands.
"The Nephthys has a large music selection," Erik offers, after a lengthy pause. It is his job to see to the well-being of every one of his charges, but he is used to adult humans. It is rare that they seek him out for company, and even more rare that they do not dismiss him when they are in physical or emotional pain. He very clearly remembers everything that has happened since his activation-- his cognitive systems may be modeled on a human, but he has infinitely more storage space. Never the less, he has for some reason assigned an unusually high priority to the words of the one of the first scientists he encountered. Dr. Grey had taken more care to positively engage Erik than many other passengers he'd known, but even her cheerful efforts paled in the face of one overwhelming incident.
('Just go away.' She had been ill, responding to Erik's inquiries with short sentence fragments and irritation. 'I'm fine.' She'd been bent over the washbasin at an almost perfect right-angle, bone-pale with the faintest sheen of nausea. 'Most humans just want to crawl away and be miserable where we're safe.'
'You are safe,' Erik had reminded her. His systems allowed for intuitive learning, but he had only been active for two years. His EROS system made a suggestion. 'Jean, I want to help you.'
'You can't!' Red face and red hair-- eyes blazing in her face while she set her teeth hard. Her normally neat french braid was all disarray, but the mess did not obscure the sapphire sheen of her ear-tag.'We don't feel safe around you, David 8. When we're hurt, we pull away, because we instinctively know you're Other.' She'd laughed a little then, palm punching the close mechanism on the door. 'Other, even to Other like me.')
Inefficient, for such an early experience to have obtained such readily-accessible storage. Perhaps because Erik had very much wanted to ask for clarification, even as every one of his systems advised (yearned for?) retreat. Later, he'd seen Dr. Grey in the commissary-- she'd smiled at him, but her eyes slid away. She was very careful to always call him 'Erik' after that.
"Maybe some other time," Charles says presently, disconnecting his own slim audio unit. It, and the crystal polyhedrons, join his reader-pad in the little messenger bag he had resting on the floor. He exhales quietly and, while it is soundless, it is also a great deal of air. Erik wonders if that qualifies as a sigh.
It is an old suggestion, and one that rarely bore fruit, but the Assistant asks anyway. "What can I do to help you?"
"Can I--" the boy bites his lip, "May I come with you, if you don't mind? I know you don't need help to do your job-- you could run this ship by yourself-- but I'll stay out of the way. I just don't want to be alone."
Interesting phrasing. Charles could accompany Erik-- he could do anything he wanted, technically, since the android is programmed to accede to his human masters in all instances not violating the Asimov Code, or his less potent self-preservation programing. May implies that Charles is asking for permission… and giving the robot a choice.
"Of course," Erik tells him, holding out a hand. There should have been a pause there, undetectable to humans but real none the less, during which his Courtesy Protocols weighed a 'white lie' against the the truthful need for productivity. Instead, the words slip out easily, utterly without consideration. Charles smiles at him again-- this one is less buoyant, but somehow more real-- and takes Erik's carefully sculpted, inoffensively flesh-toned hand.
Erik completes his rounds only eight minutes later than projected-- well within the acceptable margin of error, which always allows for the unanticipated need to interact with members of the crew. By the time they reach I Deck, Charles is enthusiastically questioning him about the inert gas being carried in the Nephthys' ion engines. When they leave K Deck, Erik has thoroughly explained the advantages of xenon. The last deck is O-- that which would be ground level when/if they should land. As it is the Operating Base for all ground missions, there are no food processors, but the unlikely pair allows for the lift's final stop anyway.
Erik has been appraised of quite a few things by this time; Charles likes mathematical theory, but isn't nearly so found of the actual equations. His favorite color is blue; he hates shoes, and also green beans, and wants to visit the Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Soccer and lacrosse are tied for favorite sports, but he can stomach basketball because Dad is such a fan. His sister is going to Stanford for engineering, but her true passion is design. She's really brilliant, but he can only tell her so every once-in-a-while, else she'd take it as license to inflict make-up and henna on him at every turn. Charles wants to be geneticist, but he'll probably never get clearance. (Here, those small fingers steal up to tug morosely at the ear tag-- a brief but thick silence descends.) Still, it would be interesting to be a zoologist of some sort, and perhaps they will let him deal with genetics as long as he promises to confine himself to non-humans.
The boy is a seemingly inexhaustible spring of questions and observations, but even he must bow to the unrelenting red ticking of Oh-Three-Hundred Hours. Erik sees him through the lift to B Deck (quite the coupe for Dr. Xavier, this being his first contract with Weyland) with firm advice to get some sleep, so he can best enjoy his sister's remaining visit. Charles thanks him, squeezes his elbow, and is gone.
"See you tomorrow," the human says over his shoulder, only barely managing to stifle another yawn. It is only an expression, and it is the truth. Erik will see Charles for many tomorrows, for the length of the mission.
And there he is, bright-eyed for breakfast in the commissary, hair tended to and shirt tucked in, having submitted to the indignity of shoes. During a brief errand into the actual kitchens, Erik is easily able to observe the boy's enthusiastic engagement with his sister, and the way both siblings work to capture and maintain Dr. Xavier's attention. There are other things to be attended to, though, and quickly. Dr. Shaw's laboratory has been set to the highest academic and industry standards, but the doctor is thoroughly displeased and wants it all redone to his specifications. Erik and a rather harried looking McCoy spend the day re-calibrating, re-aligning, and generally revising the entire workspace.
By 22:00, even Sebastian Shaw feels the day has apparently been used to the fullest, and declares he will retire.
('I think he sleeps in a coffin.' One of the deck-handlers-- Alex. Brash, but smart enough to keep _that_ comment down to a whisper.
'Jay-zuz, kid,' says one of the more experienced hands. 'In a coffin, _upside down_.')
Charles turns up at 22:53, peeking 'round the threshold to the helm. He smiles at Erik and asks what they'll be doing tonight.
Meredith's Dorky Space Notes II:
+Large Hadron Collider at CERN- the world's largest and most highly powered particle accelerator. On the border between France and Switzerland, near Geneva. They've actually been able to clock neutrinos going a few nano-seconds faster than the speed of light. Charles wants to play with *all* their shiny toys.
+Ion Engines- the next generation in rocket technology. Unlike traditional rockets, the fuel they'd carry would be inert gas, which weighs much less. It would take longer to build up speed, but ultimately it could cut the trip to Mars down to 39 days. And it _sounds_ good. ^_~
Chapter 3: Pre-Launch II
A/N: You guys are so bloody amazing! *blushes wildly* I can't thank you enough for all the kind comments!
This chapter is longer than I intended, but hopefully it's worth it. *crosses fingers*
TW for this chapter: Most ableist comments in the story have to do with telepathy, for reasons I hope to make clear soon. But I also want to make sure I'm clear that I do not support ableism in any way, shape, or form-- nor do I support an infringement of rights on a genetic-- or religious, or political, ect-- basis. *waves* That's my public service announcement for this century. ^_~
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Mission Coordinator Emma Frost activates her status and standard suite settings at 05:25 the following morning. She further announces herself with a terse message to Erik instructing him to collect her luggage from Operations Deck and deliver it post-haste. The Ship's Assistant is by no means the only one suddenly set dancing to Ms. Frost's brisk tune. When he arrives at Operations, he finds the deck swarming with every available hand, many of them surreptitiously downing caffeine shots, or grabbing sugar-shock bars from their lockers.
"It's not even Oh-Six-Hundred," Erik overhears Alex say. There are still neon green crumbs of energy bar clinging around his lips, and he's definitely not shy about sharing his opinions.
"You know what the 'Oh' stands for?" That's Armando, suiting up in one of the next generation Weyland exoskeletons. So clad, a human can lift up to two hundred pounds. Erik can lift three hundred without augmentation.
"'Oh my G-d it's early?'" Angel pipes in from the hatchway. "That joke is so _old_, Munoz." She's standing in her gray cover-all pants and a tank-top, intricate gold-ink tattoos accentuating the musculature of her arms. "Erik," she cries, waving the empty industrial mug in her hand, "there's no coffee in the dispenser!"
According to company protocols, the coffee supply for deck hands should be replaced every three days. Erik has long made it a practice to wait only two, based on the needs of pervious missions. He filed the additional requisitions under 'Crew Morale' and 'Accident Prevention'. (The Quartermaster had asked him if he thought he was being funny; Erik reminded him that humor was one of the most difficult and limited parts of EROS programming.)
Clearly, he will need to recalibrate ration projections for this group. They are probably mixing the shots with liquid coffee-- hardly in line with their Health & Safety training, but the android knows from practical experience that such an observation will not be welcome.
"I will see to it as soon as I have taken care of Ms. Frost's things," Erik assures her. Once he has gathered all of the mission coordinator's not-inconsiderable luggage, he pauses near the lift. "Flight Technician Salvadore, one is reminded to to keep every article of Weyland-issue cover-alls in place on the equipment floor."
"One can suck my--"
Ah, but the lift door is closing automatically, and Erik can easily extrapolate the rest of that sentence. He is programed to protect his human charges from harm, but he cannot protect them from the holy terror that is Ms. Frost. However rigorously she may make demands of the Ship's Assistant, she will demand likewise of her crew. Erik's emotional systems are limited-- but even he can appreciate the symmetry.
The Mission Coordinator's quarters are by far the most luxurious the Nephthys has to offer, and Ms. Frost has wasted no time establishing her territory. From her carry-on valise alone, she has set out several magazine readers, a music player, and a truly decadent faux-fur blanket folded over the sofa. There's another one thrown artfully at the foot of the bed-- Erik can see it through the cubix-glass lattice separating the bedroom from the living space. Frost is standing by the empty closet, hands on her hips. Thankfully, she seems to be contemplating her storage space rather than the Assistant's timeliness. The faceted chandelier above turns her blond hair an almost stark platinum. Still in civilian clothes, she's a study in white; short, nearly transparent chiton flowing elegantly over her pale body-suit. The only bit of color is her mouth-- a red lipstick slash against powdery skin. That, and the indigo metal tag clinging to the cartilage of her ear.
"Report," she says tersely.
"Preparations for launch are well underway," Erik tells her. The human is ignoring him in favor of unpacking her bags, but that in no way means she is not listening. "Forty-eight of the expected seventy-five crew members are on board. The entire scientific staff is accounted for. Dr. Shaw has biologicals that will need to be… dealt with… before take-off."
"Good god, why!?" Frost looks up from setting out her shoes. In addition to the very durable service boots issued by Weyland, there's an ornate pair of flat sandals, a pair of frankly ambitious heels, and long shiny white boots. Erik estimates this to be up to sixty percent more shoes then are actually necessary for the trip.
He pulls Dr. Shaw's requisition record from the Nephthys main-frame. "In the interests of testing all genetic polymorph variables--"
"Never mind," she says, waving away the extraneous information.
"All processors and medical dispensers are updated with the new crew information," Erik resumes smoothly. "Dr. McTaggart is waiting on one more shipment of micro-chisels and preservation fluid. Dr. Xavier says he requires new lenses and sensors to make his equipment more sensitive to non-visible light. I called Port Operations and requested a rush. We are still awaiting the arrival of twenty-six deck hands, as well as the Captain."
"Logan," Frost says, in a tone Erik has heard many humans use in regards to large bugs and unwanted vermin. She leans towards the vase of white camellias on the nightstand (expensive, on a space station) as if already offended by the roughneck's odor.
Erik has worked with this particular combination of Captain and Coordinator before. Despite the blond woman's reaction, the pair's leadership dynamic was actually part of what made the previous mission such a success. Both humans are brisk, efficient, and utterly upfront about their exacting standards. Logan, despite his his bulk of muscle, moves with an almost feline care, sharply aware of everything around him. Emma is a tactical genius, tutored by the finest administrative and communications experts Earth Corps has to offer. It is a persistent rumor that, had she not been born a telepath, she would have easily secured a commission with the Officer's Citadel on Mars. The fact she has achieved the title of Mission Coordinator in spite of her disability speaks to her tenacity and political acumen. For all these complimentary traits, the telepath and salt-spacer are diametrically opposite in execution. She would have been perfectly at home in shadowed vestibules of Machiavelli's Florence, while the Captain openly admits a preference for solving final disputes with his fists. Frost enjoys all manner of finery and quality indulgences; the only quality Logan concerns himself with is that of his cigars.
All EROS programming is designed to recognize that no two crews are every exactly alike. It is part of what made the David 8 model so marketable-- the ability to understand that 'logical' and 'productive' solutions were sometimes blocked or diluted by the intricacy of human interaction. The gestalt of so many human beings working together results in variations as infinite and diverse and the individuals who comprise it. As an outside observer, one of the Assistant's duties is to head off altercations and personality conflicts. With almost two decades of experience, Erik considers his EROS to be sufficiently accurate with the former, and only 69% accurate with the later.
Sometimes two human beings simply take a disliking to one another for no tangible reason Erik can discern.
For example, he considers the likelihood that Ms. Frost is dramatizing her distaste to be quite high. He _knows_ his heightened olfactory sensors have detected potent-- and conflicting-- biological responses from Logan in regards to the woman who technically outranks him.
"The Captain is just coming off a mission on Callisto," the Ship's Assistant offers, keeping the rest of the anecdotal data to himself. Humans do not appreciate being reminded he must observe them in an attempt to understand. They do not like being watched.
"Small mercies," Frost murmurs. seating herself primly on the edge of the bed. Her gaze is fully on the android now. Erik notes that her eyes are blue-- a pale shade, and unremarkable. "Anything else?"
"There are twenty-two cases of Hapaxam stored in refrigerated holds 48C and 49D. The Nephthys is programmed to continuously allot of a supply of power there in all but the most dire of emergencies."
Two things occur simultaneously. Frost's expression acquires an intense but subtle cast of aggression-- and Erik puts both hands out, palms up in a peaceable gesture. He can see the moment logic defeats her instinct to take offense. It is, after all, only the sheer volume of their cargo that makes it worthy of remark.
"The Xavier boy," she says flatly.
"Charles." Unnecessary clarification, but his vocoder has already produced the sound.
"And who is our lucky licensed dispenser?"
"Doctor Sebastian Shaw has a current certificate. Brian Xavier has on file for one, but he's let it lapse."
"Well," Frost says, fishing delicately in her valise. She retrieves a small red book, tossing it vaguely in Erik's direction. Android reflexes ensure he catches it without faltering. "You may deliver my cycle-book to Dr. Shaw when you see him next. See to it he has all the necessary access codes, and make sure the Xavier boy submits his book, too. We'll try to sync up after we come out of Cryo, but for now Dr. Shaw will just have to put up with the inconvenience. Is that all?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Erik nods deferentially, but she's already turned away, busying herself with the laptop hookup to Nephthys' mainframe. She waves him away with silence and a limp, careless hand.
* * * * * * * * *
"Char-les!" she yells, drawing out the name. "Come on! I said I was sorry!"
No response from her brother's quarters, save that the already earsplitting volume increases. Erik now has a large enough lyric sample to identify the language.
"Icelandic?" he inquires, raising his own voice to be heard. Startling ever-so-slightly, Raven turns towards him and lets out a long breath.
"Sigur Ros," she tells him, rolling her eyes. "He doesn't speak Icelandic, he just likes the song." Banging her fist on the door again. she adds, "And he's playing it at annoying volumes rather than _talk_ to me like a _reasonable person_!"
Transferring his gaze between the young woman and the closed chamber several times, the Ship's Assistant considers the situation. At nineteen, Raven must know that the sound and vibration caused by her assault on the door is negligible at best. Humans, however, often couple mild physical violence and inanimate objects to diffuse frustration. That may be her intent, in addition to drawing Charles' attention. The music _is_ very loud; it cannot be comfortable or enjoyable to anyone on the other side of the significantly dampening hatch material. If the suite's occupant were unable to hear the ruckus outside, it would follow that they would not be able to hear Charles, should he be in distress.
"I am authorized to override privacy locks in case of medical emergency," Erik offers. The look that creeps over the blond girl's face is very similar to the one Angel was sporting earlier. Lips parted, with an audible sigh, jaw locked and eyes again rolling skyward. The Ship's Assistant waits patiently-- and silently-- for her to elaborate on the source of her displeasure. After a moment, however, Raven's delicately made-up face takes on another expression entirely. Erik has seen this far more rarely; his EROS databank identifies it as the dramatic version of 'pity'.
"If you thought Charles was all sweetness and light and a basketful of kitties," she tells him, wagging a bejeweled finger, "then you've got another 'think' coming."
As there is no rational reply to this at present, Erik settles on a standard noncommittal conversational tool. "Oh?"
Human language is extremely idiosyncratic. No branch, no family or dialect is exempt from the convoluted connections homo sapiens are so partial to. Teenagers and young adults, in particular, go further by deliberately using a verbal shorthand designed to confound their elders. When Raven continues staring at him, the Ship's Assistant decides to offer his own observation, in hopes that it will draw her out. He has made an analysis and preliminary determination of the character traits of everyone who has boarded this ship.
With a human, the lack of sentence resolution would be permissible, or perhaps used as an indicator to read nonverbal cues instead. Erik never speaks without knowing the entirety of the statement he is going to make, and yet there seems to be a conflict. 'Highly intelligent but under-socialized' could be used as a descriptive phrase but, if the boy had internalized the attitudes of his contemporaries, Charles would not have spent the last two nights enthusiastically questioning Erik about Lyman Alpha blobs in deep space, and chattering delightedly about vintage film comedy called 'Duck Soup'. 'Unusually empathetic' also seems unwise, as his sister might take that as a subtle reference to Charles' telepathy. Humans on the whole prefer stereotypes and cliches because it cuts down on processing time. Erik knows, however, that-- particularly amongst friends and relatives-- those same popular stereotypes are extremely unwelcome. Raven might feel that he was trying to characterize Charles solely by his disability, or that the boy is somehow 'quaint'. None of these highly biased statements can be applied to Charles in the slightest, and it takes the android less than .57 seconds to discard them. Eliminating possibilities, however, does not provide a solution.
"Charles is different," Raven finishes for him. In her perception, very little time has passed-- she has not been combing diverse data clusters for something so outside the realm of her experience. "He's special."
Special, as in an exception. In science, exceptions are anomalies; anecdotal evidence that does not fit with observable data. Often, these unusual examples are highly prized. Dr. Stark (of Eta Carinae fame) is also quite famous for having located a Magnetar-- a dying star so heavy its magnetic field is strong enough to deform atoms. Tanzanite is a unusual stone, found only near Mount Kilimanjaro, whose rich colors actually change in regular light. After blossoming at dawn, tiny stigmas must be quickly harvested to produce Saffron-- making it the most expensive spice on Earth.
"Special." Erik repeats the word, but it is not a question. This is a highly accurate assessment and slots several of his most intimate subroutines into sound agreement with one another. He is, after all, a scientist's robot. While all artifacts are worthwhile, it is only logical that rare ones should be more protected and prized.
"In a good way!" says the human before him, poking his gray-clad chest soundly. She seems to feel he has disagreed with her in some way. Even more loudly, "I'll have you know--"
Her voice rings quite clearly in the hallway as the overwhelming music is abruptly shut off. Immediately, Raven's attention is back on the door.
"Thank god and all her crazy cousins!" She shouts, kicking the door again for good measure. "Did you want to give that crazy douche-tard an excuse to file a complaint before you guys even get out of the solar system!?"
Even Erik has seen enough pop-culture vid-feed to pick up on that one. "Of which 'douche-bag bastard' do you speak?"
"Shaw," Raven spits. "Daddy and Charles have the forward part of Deck B. Shaw and his assistant have the aft." It's an absent-minded explanation. The girl is far more focused on pressing up against the metal barrier, as if a few centimeters will make her words carry further. "Charles, come on. I wasn't trying to be mean. You and Sharon… that's you business, I'm sorry I said anything."
A little voice carries from inside the suite. "'The sharpest sword is a word spoken in wrath'." The statement would sound quite chiding and serene, if not for the sound of clearing nasal passages that follows.
"Someone save me from the well-read existentialist!" Raven flings up her hands. Then, more quietly, "Charles, have you been crying?"
"The current model of masculinity enshrines an insular stoicism that precludes…"
"Don't give me that gendered bull-shit." Raking fingers through her hair-- destroying her delicate coif in the process-- the older human pulls at her scalp in frustration. "It's like talking to a Magic 8-Ball."
A brief cross-reference at least sheds light on that bit of sarcasm. "Charles' statements are well-reasoned," Erik interjects. Perhaps a third opinion-- even a nonhuman one-- will assist in ending what appears to be an on-going stalemate. "I would be far more skeptical of answers provided by an inexpensive novelty toy."
Laughter-- brief but startlingly alto-- from behind the door.
"Fine, gang up on me. At least have the decency to come out and do it to my face. Come on out, now." The android seems to sense genuine irritation in the young woman's voice now. Charles must sense it too, as there's a disgruntled thump from the inside of the suite.
"No esta aqui!" the boy calls out. It's his final word on the subject-- the sconce above the threshold turns light blue, indicating the guest's desire for an environment conducive to sleep.
"What did you _want_?" It ill advised to do anything abruptly while clad in such footwear, but Erik would especially refrain from the dramatic whirl and aggressive stride Raven adopts as she moves away from him.
The Ship's assistant blinks. "I came to request Charles' cycle-book. Ms. Frost has already provided me with hers." He has not had the opportunity to observe many sibling interactions, but these two seem particularly labyrinthine in their relations. Then again, the only other set he knew were brother physicists on the Nephthys' second mission. Common field of study or no, those two young men could barely stand to share a room for the length of a debriefing.
"Frost is a telepath?" Raven asks, indulging in the human trait of seizing on peripheral information.
"Ms. Frost is a lambda-level telepath," Erik says, because this is in no way classified information. Weyland Industries could not hide such a thing even if they wanted to; assuming the Department of Extra-human Matriculation didn't get them (unlikely), word of mouth and human outcry would. As it is, the company has wisely adopted a forthright, championing attitude. 'It's not a bug, it's a feature,' Emma told Erik on the first mission. She'd had a great deal of wine-- it lent a brittle edge to her laugh.
"Well, I usually give Charles his injections," the human girl says presently. "So I keep his book. I was just going to leave it with Daddy."
"I took my birth mother's name," she clarifies. "Darkholme."
Normally, Erik would consider this a nonessential detail and remind the human to confine her remarks to the topic at hand. His processors instead store the new data to be considered later-- perhaps it provides context for Charles. "Miss Darkholme," he begins again, "I politely request your brother's cycle book."
"What--" Her statistically median hazel eyes regard him for a moment. Erik believes humans often read additional, unintended cues into his carefully neutral expression. This seems to be the case now. "He let his license lapse, didn't he?"
"Your father?" It should be clear whom they're speaking of, but it never hurts to be specific with humans. "Yes. It is three months out of date. Doctor Shaw, however, has a current license and will act as dispenser for the mission."
"Bloody brilliant," Raven mutters under her breath, but she no longer seems inclined to argue. She darts quickly into the common day-room, rummaging amidst brightly colored fabrics, concept drawings and strings of sequins. Like Ms. Frost, she keeps the little red book in her purse. She holds it between thumb and forefinger, as if the color of it burns. "Here."
"Thank you," Erik accepts the book as it is thrust towards him. Not for the first time, it occurs to him that this method of record keeping is inefficient-- why not keep a record of Hapaxam shots with the rest of the crew's medical data? Perhaps it has to do with the human inclination towards things that are tactile, or perhaps there is some finer point of social interaction his EROS system cannot detect.
Having obtained what he has come for, Erik turns sharply. He will take the books down to Dr. Shaw, and-- provided there are no new tasks-- begin the safety checks for the ion engines. The work is too fine, and too dangerous, for humans to consider. However, if he attends to this in a timely manner, he can spend the night-shift hours working with the navigation computers. The helm is, of course, designed for human comfort, and Charles may sit with him there.
The Ship's Assistant stops, tilting his head slightly in inquiry. This is unexpected-- he had believed he had correctly read Raven's attitude as dismissal or discomfort towards synthetic beings.
"Miss Darkholme?" he turns fully. The girl standing before him shares very few physical similarities, though at the moment they both appear younger than they really are. "He's done nothing but talk about you since we got here. 'Erik this', and 'Erik that'."
Neither Erik nor his EROS can come up with a response for this.
"He likes you," she enunciates slowly, as though speaking to someone alien. Perhaps she is. For all Erik's synthetic mind has been modeled on his human inventors, there will never be any way to conclusively prove just how much of their perceptions actually align.
"Charles is a brat." The statement is utterly at odds with the affection Raven uses to voice it. "He can be charming, overly sensitive, frighteningly astute. He's bloody stupid about people, he's adorable, and he's way too book-smart for his own good." As if intelligence were a disadvantage to be guarded against, the way many couples did reproductive screening for telepathy. "Daddy took this position because he wants to lose himself in his work-- at this point, Charles is just along for the ride." A heavy sigh, "Oh, why am I bothering to tell a _robot_ this?"
"Humans often make emotional statements and/or revelations to synthetic lifeforms, believing themselves safe from judgement." Even scientists, who understand the design and function of David 8 better than the general public, occasionally indulge in drunken narratives spoken at Erik. 'At', not 'to', because the android's reaction is not important. It is the psychological value of saying something aloud.
"You two will get along just fine," she snorts. There follows a moment of utter transparency on her face-- Erik cannot readily identify the emotion, but he feels oddly impelled to look away. "Will you look out for him?"
As Ship's Assistant, Erik should tell her that all humans aboard the Nephthys will be his top priority for the duration of the mission. As a David 8, he should point out that he has been carefully designed to consider emotional and psychological wellbeing, as well as physical health. As an android, he might ask her what else he would do, if not serve those who created him.
Logical responses, all, but never the less discarded. Erik thinks of the Eta Carinae explosion-- of the brilliant images Dr. Stark captured and saved to the ship's memory. He thinks of complicated polyhedrons and imaginary planes. Tanzanite has a very unusual violet-blue hue-- Charles has said he enjoys the interactions of light and color. Perhaps he would be interested in learning about the stone.
Erik just says, "Yes. I will."
MORE DORKY NOTES:
+ The song Charles is listening to is inní mér syngur vitleysingur (inside me a madman sings) by Sigur Ros, of Iceland. It's a really beautiful song. (No, I don't know what it means, either. ^_~)
+'The sharpest sword is a word spoken in wrath.'-- Gautama Buddha. (Yes, Charles is a little shit.)
+Magnetars really exist. Could I make this stuff up?
+Tanzanite here and here.
+picture of a Saffron flower here. (It's the little red thingies that make the spice.)
+Magic 8-Ball inspiration from kyliselle's hilarious and hot Kirk/Spock fic, Captured.
+'No esta aqui!'- Spanish. 'I'm not here.'
Chapter 4: Alexandria
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Okay... deep breath. I've been picking at this chapter for weeks now, and I've finally just decided to post it before I end up tossing the whole thing. *rolls eyes at herself* So, I apologize if the quality is a little wonky or anything. Hopefully it's not to bad-- this chapter could probably be labeled as 'Erik learns how to fret'. ;-)
Thank you so, so much to everyone who's been so kind in commenting. telperion_15, the wonderful SanLynn, You_Light_The_Sky (do you have any idea how madly in love with your vampire!Magneto fic I am? <3), emlawrence, KaraQ, Lea, rumcity all the lovely people who've left kudos... you guys are just amazing, and even a whole bushel of David 8's couldn't come up with words to describe it! (Though I'm sure we'd like to see them try. ^_~)
TW for this chapter: Gross but hopefully vague scientific/medical discussion (much tamer than the movie, I promise), dubious ethics regarding artificial life. Brief mentions of social dangers faced by children, some ableism. Absentee parenting.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Erik intends to dedicate most of the day to general maintenance. That will leave the evening-- particularly the human's dinner and recreation block-- for safety checks on the engines, and the night-shift for navigation calibration. The helm also has the finest holo-trideo display on the Nephthys, and will be able to showcase the stills from Eta Carinae to their best advantage. Erik has carefully organized these captures by security classification and visual splendor, with particular attention paid to unusual examples of color. Charles may also be interested in the navigation systems themselves-- how parabolics and angles from pulsars assist as points of reference in the endless void. As so few humans leave the solar system-- or even their own planet-- despite the opportunities, the android cannot imagine the subject is covered much in school.
'Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men', he thinks a few hours later, as he methodically scrubs down yet another lab biological. Of course, the synthetic creatures-- marketed under the trade name 'lab-imals'-- hardly look like mice at all. Instead, they are roughly the size of domesticated felines, eyes an unnatural shade of bubble-gum pink, hairless gray skin stretched over Llama-like necks. The subset Dr. Shaw is using have only the organs necessary to function, though there are others available that grow extra kidneys or livers. There is even a boar-like breed that grows additional human-compatible organs, which can be removed without damaging the unit. They are quite popular for medical trials and organ transplants. One of the few distinctly favorable points Erik has found in Shaw is that the doctor does not seem inclined towards this type of piece-meal science. He is interested in complete genetic deconstruction or the full final form-- nothing in between. Which is good because-- while Erik is designed to withstand temperatures capable of melting glass-- the android still finds reaching into the animals' warm flesh to retrieve the organs… highly undesirable.
Erik looks at the soapy, half-sanitized lab-imal blandly-- it looks back at him with numb stupidity and tries in vain to chew on his sleeve. The creatures come sterile from the supplier, but Shaw insists that they must have been compromised, as the doctor has already lost one to unexpected reactions in the polymorph serum. Which explains why Erik-- and two luckless human lab assistants-- are currently encased in hazard suits, hosing the biologicals down one by one.
"It couldn't possibly be due to an error on his part," one of the assistants grouses, her aquiline features screwed up in distaste. This is Gabrielle Haller, Dr. McTaggart's aide. As an archaeology major, she doesn't have much experience with live-lab protocols, something she has expounded upon at length during this whole procedure. Janos-- Shaw's assistant-- has said absolutely nothing, and Erik himself has made only vague interrogative noises when his social programming deems appropriate.
They are very nearly finished, though. With some minor alterations, Erik may well be able to stick to his itinerary. He seems more acutely aware of the passage of time, which is unusual. Typically, there are simply things that must be done, and the most efficient logical manner in which they are to be accomplished. Just as humans who do operate in space have slowly begun to move away from Earth-based timekeeping, Erik is not dependent on his charges for a sense of chronology. Though they are always his top priority, he is not actually exposed to the human crew that much, all things considered. A trip through deep space can take two to three years with current technology; thus, while human orders always trump routine, Erik's sense of reality is mostly delineated by tasks Weyland Industries and/or he sets for himself. Tasks are performed, equipment is given maintenance, and in the fullness of all cyclical things, they come 'round again.
Humans arrive; they outline their plans, set forth standing orders, organize cargo, and then they sleep. Erik and the Nephthys slide silently through the unfathomable spaces between the stars. The humans wake, birthing noise and commotion, accomplishing their goals, only to sleep once more for the return. Again, the only sound aboard the ship is the score to _Lawrence of Arabia_, or the computer reading _The Epic of Gilgamesh_ aloud.
'Rinse and repeat, mind the bleach,' as he has heard Angel say.
Except that's not quite it now, Erik thinks as they move to the last stall of lab-imals. There are three within. Janos dowses them, wearing the same look of not-quite-startled blandness as his victims. One of them bleats unpleasantly in protest-- the first noise they've heard from the creatures all afternoon.
All David 8's have the ability to benefit from incidental learning, and Erik has encountered many new things in his 17.36 years of activation. The subtle difference is as difficult to perceive as it is explicit in the following simple fact: in less than fifteen days, all humans aboard the Nephthys-- including young Charles Xavier-- will enter cryogenic suspension. From their perspective, the only 'time' that passes will be the medical prep, the vague frozen dreaming, and the admittedly unpleasant post-waking hangover. Erik will have a little less than 770 days to his own devices. He intends to learn Sanskrit, Sumerian and Aramaic; thoroughly familiarize himself with the Brahmi scripts; and possibly broaden to ancient Gaelic variations and Pictish symbols. He will watch _Lawrence of Arabia_ multiple times, _Bridge Over River Kwai_ for the first, and plans to do research on early French silent film.
He will share these things with no one, but he never has before. Charles will sleep, beside his seventy-four shipmates, and be looked after. Erik is not quite certain how this data correlates to a sense of limitation, but it does so never the less.
"Last one," Gabrielle says, relief clear in her voice. Erik holds the lab-imal still so she can scrub it down. The young woman does so gingerly-- as careful not to touch the creature unnecessarily as she is to avoid the android. Janos dumps another bucket of sani-solution over it when she's done.
"Alright," she gestures vaguely at Erik and the beast. "Git along, lil' doggies."
Janos snorts. It is not loud enough to detect amusement, or anything else.
Shaw is in the large common lab on Deck F when Erik reports to him. Gabrielle and Janos trail behind him, clearly hoping to avoid notice, and any further chores. They're all back in their gray Weyland scrubs, Erik looking the most neat, despite the fact the other two have showered. David 8's do not sweat, but they are very fastidious.
"The lab biologicals have been sanitized," the android announces. The elder Xavier and McTaggart are present as well, but Erik doesn't worry about interrupting-- they are each absorbed in their own research and-- like so many scientists-- have probably not conversed since arriving in the lab.
"Really?" Shaw asks, barely looking up from his formulae. "That was fast. Are you sure you did it right?" This, at least, he addresses to Janos.
The human assistant blinks with an eloquence any David model would envy. "Yes."
"Well then, Dr. Xavier and I have some trideo gene slides we'd like to align-- look for a few ancient and modern commonalities. Go get the equipment."
No reaction from young Mr. Quested, but Gabrielle sighs heavily.
"Oh, dinner can wait," McTaggart admonishes. "We need to compare the new set of rune sequences to the ones we found in Greenland." She smiles warmly at her student, almost sisterly in her conspiracy. "Someday you'll be a famous scientist, with your own staff to torment."
This is not the first time Erik has heard humans reference the opportunity to abuse power as a desirable prospect but, as always, it makes him wonder. Humans count themselves unique amongst natural animals in their ability to empathize-- certainly, it is something they have been unable to fully reproduce in their creations. Even Erik's capacity for such is a pale shadow, based more on Lenat algorithms than anything else. Every David model, from the first rudimentary version to the present day, has been instilled with this 'common-sense' programming. The EROS is built on top of Lenat's more basic foundation, points such as: dying is undesirable, water is wet, animals do not like pain. Yet 'hazing' is just one of the many examples in which 'natural' humans seem to have the ability to turn off or ignore something 'fundamental'. Curious.
The discussion around him as devolved into an argument regarding dinner break-- the android has been aware of every word, but it hardly involves him. It _is_ well past 18:00 though, something Janos is quick to point out.
"And where's McCoy?" the dark haired human asks. For the first time, the pitch of his voice varies slightly. "How come he gets a free pass?"
"Hank is taking Charles to see his sister off at space dock," the elder Xavier mutters absently. "I very much doubt you envy him the role of babysitter."
Erik does not turn his head, but his gaze switches sharply at the words. Sure enough, a wireless check of Nephthys's registry shows that Raven's guest status has been deactivated. Charles and McCoy are currently checked out as 'in port'.
"Brian!" Moira says, soprano voice reaching a higher pitch. She's even looking up from her rubbings. "You sent them out in Alexandria alone?"
"They're together," the geneticist points out unnecessarily, which would seem obtuse if not for the earnest confusion in his distracted glance.
"Hank is _seventeen_," the archaeologist reminds him, speaking rather more slowly than is strictly polite. While Brian Xavier's IQ scores are no where near the staggering figures his son has achieved (or even young McCoy, who seems to have skipped most of middle school to be presently enrolled at MIT), the crypto-geneticist _is_ a highly respected academic figure with many discoveries to his name. Throughout his years of activation, Erik has had ample opportunity to observe evidence supporting the common stereotype that scholars do not have 'street smarts'; puzzling anecdotal evidence, but of no great import.
This particular discordance, however, is troubling in a way previous examples have not been.
"There are many social and environmental cues aboard a space station that are unfamiliar to first-time Terrans." Erik's vocoder produces the words with only the barest consultation of his etiquette programing. "Moreover, many things are permissible on Alexandria that are forbidden-- or unavailable-- on Earth." It's an unnecessary clarification, and one for which Moira shoots him a repressive 'look'.
Softly, placatingly, she begins, "I'm sure Dr. Xavier is aware--"
"It hardly stands to reason that Charles should see her off from port anyway," Brian continues almost to himself, and clearly unaware that he has interrupted anyone else's expression. "I suppose it's 'closure'." Distracted, considering. The last word pronounced like some rare strain of single-celled life form. "Still, he and Hank are close in age-- it's good for them to get to know each other. Charles could use a friend on board."
"Oh, indeed," Shaw says. His voice is mild, and his back is towards the group. Erik's sharp visual sensors, however, are able to detect a reflective sliver of chrome. That smile seems unnecessarily wide. "Hank's a clever boy-- I'm sure he's smart enough to keep Charles entertained."
"Quite," Dr. Xavier nods decisively, and that seems to close the subject. Both McTaggart and Gabrielle roll their eyes. Shortly, Erik is also ordered to assist Janos with the lens equipment.
It would seem the evening period has now been spoken for, too.
* * * * * * * * *
The scenarios he's running now-- while he and Janos silently arrange the delicate sensors-- are… decidedly undesirable. Raven, despite her dubious taste in footwear, is a capable young woman going off to college. Erik has no doubt she is savvy enough-- and cynical enough-- to successfully navigate Alexandria and reach the tender mercies of inter-Earth security. Young McCoy, while more intellectually advanced, in no way produces such favorable statistics.
In even the most permissive society, there will exist a few utterly inviolate taboos. The very fact of free license breeds a dark, thin layer of conservatism; as though humans could not hear 'yes, yes' without also occasionally implying 'no'. Nowadays, no one cares how many or what manner of consenting adult you take to your bed (or pool, or playroom). They are not interested in what gods you may (or may not) worship, or the proclamations thereof. The economy is managed by a series of computers that may as well _be_ gods, for all anyone remembers but how to do the simplest of maintenance on them, and the vast majority of society considers politics a bore. Most forms of entertainment are taxed and regulated, including trade for sex and pharmaceutical recreation; everyone may take comfort in the staid reassurance of numbered forms and red tape.
Still, there is 'no'. There must be, for society to function, for the species to survive. Many of them are as arbitrary as restrictions in the era of Queen Victoria. A displaced citizen of the 21st century would be baffled by both societies, past and present. It is rude, bordering on insulting, to bring someone a drink when they have not overseen its preparation. It is completely acceptable to answer ones communication device at any time, up to and including physical intimacy. Pink is perceived as a universal color, but yellow is currently seen as very feminine, and no one would have the gall to wear white to a wedding.
There are… other things, however. Synthetic lifeforms not capable of consent; designer parasites that ensnare, taking a human's ability to consent away. There are gene-thieves, joy-trains, synesthesia parlors. Alexandria offers these forbidden delights, and more. United Earth Corps, for all their amazing regulation of data and citizenry, allows this to be so, to a certain degree. Surely Dr. Xavier had been aware of the danger of kidnapping for monetary gain on Earth! On Alexandria, there would be no such exchange. Erik has been programmed with a vast understanding of aesthetic appreciation, from fine art to music and everything in between. Objectively speaking, Charles is a beautiful example of homo sapiens psyonic; the porcelain flush of skin, the anomalous blue eyes, the MCR1 gene evident in his auburn hair. He is like the squire in a painting, whose youthful loveliness and thirst of adventure outshine the knight being showcased. There are those in Alexandria who would be quick to notice this, and their appreciation would _not_ be artistic.
There seems to be data in this situation that is refusing to conform with any logic model Erik has previously used. Every David is responsible for the humans on the ship he is steward of, but only as long as they are actually on the ship. It is not uncommon for crew to board and leave the vessel several times while in port-- any port, be it Alexandria (in orbit around Earth), Ophir (Mars), or Tartarus (in the Kuiper Belt past Pluto). Salt-spacers and deck hands are always particularly eager to partake of the fleshpots in dock, which only get more wild and unregulated the further one gets from Earth.
Erik has never devoted much processing power to considering the activities of those who leave the Nephthys to 'mingle with the local color'. But Charles… Erik has no doubt the boy is capable of navigating most situations on terra firma. Yet there is also a vulnerability in Charles, some ephemeral quality that even a David 8 can sense. What if Hank and the boy are separated? Alexandria has Face Mages, and gangs that have adopted uniforms difficult to distinguish from that of the police. There are private collectors who specialize in telepaths, and big-money poachers that sell to think tanks.
It is troubling, and disconcerting to _be_ troubled. The reaction even manifests physically… highly unusual. It is a very faint but unpleasant coldness in his servo chassis, which is where a human's stomach would be. Raven's request-- that Erik 'look out' for Charles'-- has a context now that suddenly makes it much more logical.
(He said 'yes', without pausing to consider or clarify or question.
Somehow, that suddenly seems more logical, too.)
Meredith's Dorky Science Notes:
+lab-imals- an utterly unworthy nod to the brilliant Margaret Atwood. Her speculative fiction novel, Oryx and Crake tackles (among many other issues) the ethical, practical and moral dilemmas we may begin to face as science outpaces the law. I highly recommend it (and the sequel, The Year of the Flood), but only if you have plenty of kleenex handy. *sniffles just thinking about it* ^^;;
+Douglas Lenat- One of the pioneers in the bottom-up school of Artificial Intelligence. Since 1984, he's been engaged in programming 'common sense' parameters for computers, which include all of the statements Erik mentioned.
… rum city was absolutely right-- I am an utterly unrepentant sci-fi fanatic. *headdesk* ^_~
Chapter 5: Davids 4-6
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Dang, I can't believe how long it took me to get this chapter out. I had this weird little block about half way through, and then RL shook things up for me with a move to another department. (Fewer customers, a LOT more data, and I'm still getting used to it. X_x;;) This section is a bit heavy on the backstory, but I promise we'll be getting underway soon. I hope it's not boring, but I thought it would be neat if Erik and Charles became friends even before their enforced companionship was an issue. ^_^ As always, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to read my story. If I could bother you just a bit more to comment, I would be so, so grateful!
TW: Brief mentions of historical genocide, war crimes, implied medical and ethical violations, general moral 'queasiness'; futuristic ableism in regards to telepathy.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
During the industrial, pre-computing era, it was said that wealthy women often placed convex mirrors in some discrete corner of the room. The warp of the glass made it useless for inspecting one's image, but that (Erik's database tells him) was hardly the point. The curved mirror provided the perfect high ground, a vantage point by which the mistress of the house could see her entire parlor. She could examine the faces of her guests from other angles, see over her shoulder to ensure the servants were following orders. It was, in short, a finely crafted strategic advantage.
It is this bit of trivia that forms Erik's understanding of the phrase, 'out of sight, out of mind'. As a David 8, he is actually programmed with aphorisms in many different languages, so he might better interact with his human counterparts. Computerized logic is black and white. The core remains unchanged from the earliest days of calculating and code-breaking; endless one's and zero's, 'if then' scenarios, defined variable sets. Such rigid, mathematical precision is utterly at odds with human language. (Secretly, Erik finds it statistically anomalous that humans discovered math at all-- it seems so out of character.) Many of the sayings in the EROS database mean next to nothing to the android; 'his tongue wags at both ends', 'up a creek without a paddle', or 'its raining cats and dogs'.
Humans count themselves unique amongst organic creation for their ability to symbol. They do this-- or so the EROS tells him-- because they are trying to communicate emotion, as well as information. 'She was broken-hearted', they say, because the image of a shattered and useless thing evokes a visceral reaction. For many years following his activation, Erik envisioned this system as a very rough way of breaking down what seemed-- to him, at least-- already fairly obvious concepts.
'Out of sight, out of mind' is the first such saying to evoke a non-logic based response from _him_ as an individual consciousness. It _means_ something to him; a feeling, however faint, in that vague area of upper left-chest secondary hardware.
It is sage advice, too. Like the sweeping estate ladies of old, humans seem to find it difficult to observe Erik without also giving him more tasks to perform. Common wisdom holds that no android ever has 'enough work to keep it out of trouble'.
(Is this statement like the old proverb about the devil and idle hands? If so, he wonders what trouble or devil he is supposed to be keeping safe distance from.)
By the time Erik and Janos finish setting up the lens equipment, most everyone-- including McTaggart and her reluctant assistant-- has quit the lab in favor of the commissary. Only Dr. Shaw and the elder Xavier remain, seemingly oblivious to nutritional necessity. They both move forward eagerly to inspect the trideo set-up, already engaged in a combative discussion regarding gene samples. Erik takes a discrete step backwards, and then another. Mr. Quested, who foolishly remains within arms reach, is soon commanded to fetch slides and organic residue for the scientist's viewing pleasure. The android himself holds perfectly still, for even breathing is an affectation more for the humans' comfort than his own. As Dr. Xavier begins using wild hand motions to reinforce his points, the Ship's Assistant slips out of the room and into the thankfully empty corridor.
The staff has neglected to give him new orders, and he has pre-existing chores to attend to.
Most of the general maintenance will have to be shelved until tomorrow-- anything that isn't time sensitive. The same goes for the navigational programming. What cannot wait is the checks for the ion engines. It's 20:37, so Erik heads for the sub-decks directly. The Nephthys mainframe supplies him instantly with all the information necessary for the task. It also informs him that Charles Xavier and Henry McCoy are still listed as 'in port'.
A quick check of the registrar shows the young men left with Raven at 17:12, but there is no data stored in regards to Ms. Darkholme's flight, nor are there projections available for outgoing traffic. There's no way of knowing how many security checkpoints Charles would be allowed to accompany his sister through, or if the party had any plans before hand. Three hours is not excessive per say, not given the number of unknown variables.
Erik busies himself with the rhythmic call-and-response of rapid communication with the ship's mainframe. The Nephthys is not sentient. It-- 'she', as the humans insist on referring to the vessel-- is a computer in the most traditional sense. No reverse-engineering, human modeling or organic inserts here. Just silicon and circuitry, pewter-dark against the vastness of space.
The concept of 'living' ships had been considered by Weyland Industries-- and then rejected, due to both cost considerations and public opinion polls. Humans were willing to tolerate a (very strictly regulated) subset of androids in their midst, but the thought of something so _massive_ being alive… no. Even consciousness somewhere on the order of a manatee's intelligence had been deemed unnecessary. The funds, Weyland's President announced soothingly, would better be used elsewhere. There were socio-economic rifts to heal, and a long embittered conflict to recover from. Artificial gravity and ion engines were revolutions in technology enough, and those the human race would seize.
The leap forward to viable space travel occurred less than five years after the devastating Cleansing Conflict-- the time of the David 3, or earlier. Little more than glorified automatons, those had been; good for heavy manual labor, but sometimes destructive in their literalism and rigid programming models. Certainly, had no first hand data from the time period. Information stored on the IntraSol Archive was somewhat limited, and there was little chance of that changing. Security, United Earth Corps insisted-- there were still many war criminals, domestic traitors and other undesirables at large. The blessing of space-travel had a hidden edge, providing new places for malcontents to hide.
('Space travel,' whispered the masked ISPs, 'occurred as a direct result of the Conflict.' Presumably such anonymous dark-chat rumors came from those very same malcontents, but Cyber Crimes could dedicate whole decades to catching just one cell, only to have three rise in its place.
'Fruit of genocide,' the many-headed beast intoned. 'Torture, horrific war crimes, thoughtless experimentation on a subspecies that is now, for all intents and purposes-- extinct. The mutants were gone, and the telepaths bound by chemical chains. 'Hapaxam'-- named 'pax' for the peace it had finally granted Mother Earth and her colonies.
Needless to say, the thought of 'growing' sentient ships had been enough to discomfort even the most militant of politicians. No one had wanted to contemplate the source of such cell material.
No one said a word, either, when Weyland Industries was able to release Davids 4-6-- 'a revolutionary union of Artificial Intelligence and Biotechnology'-- in quick succession.)
Theoretically, Erik knows there is nothing to stand in the way of a living ship actually being created. Every now and then, rumor still surfaces that someone _has_. These propagate mostly in dark-chats and sub-viral message boards, the same sorts of places that bred urban legends of secret mutant communities or telepathic uprisings. Erik gives such sources exactly the sort of credence they deserve, which is almost nothing at all.
He is glad the Nephthys has more in common with a tablet or laptop than it does with him. He has never met an another android, nor does he particularly wish to. If the Nephthys were alive, she (for it would be a 'she', then) might be lonely, gliding through the dark nothing between systems. The voyage would not be a respite, as it is for him.
And anyway the humans are scarcely conscientious about treating the facilities kindly, as it is.
Moreover, Erik does not have to come up with an explanation for his repeated inquires to the crew log. Finally, at 23:18, Charles and McCoy are keyed as having returned to the ship. A quick check of the medical pods show no issues or maladies reported, so it is reasonable enough to assume both youths have returned unmolested, though the android considers six hours a bit excessive for their endeavor.
The engine checks take another two hours, all told. It is time-consuming work-- exacting and repetitive, but not unpleasant. The cyclical patterns create a peaceful background hum, and the android is able to multitask in ways that would confound a fully organic brain. Erik uses the time to download and review several articles on cave-drawings and inuksuk in the ancient Arctic. Dr. McTaggart had mentioned obtaining new artifacts in this field, as he likes to be as well-versed as possible in all the relevant subjects. Of course, he rarely puts it to use in from of his human colleagues, but it also does not follow that data-- once gathered-- must always be shared. Many people, he has found, do not like being lectures by… his kind.
Upon completing a general overview of Dr. McTaggart's latest work, Erik compares it with some of the contested findings on Europa and Eris. That takes a little more doing, as even the most scholarly of peer-reviewed journals are full of pointed barbs and barely concealed censure. The findings on these remote outposts-- mainstream science cried-- was 'compelling', but not conclusive in proving the existence of non-human life. Ascribing function and design to rock formations worn down by centuries of climatological abuse would be… premature. More evidence, they cried-- always more evidence, and nothing in the decade since the Eris digs had proven sufficient to challenge the Established Model.
('Sometimes, it isn't a matter of withholding data at all,' Erik considers, barely drawing back the risorius 'muscle' to produce a quirk of the lips. 'There can be facts presented that humans genuinely refuse to accept.')
Since he is already in the high security area of the sub-decks, Erik takes the opportunity complete the required checks of 'sensitive cargo'. This includes the twenty-two cases of Hapaxam, as well as an entire block of chemical/biological material brought on board by Dr. Shaw. Some of the latter is ambiguously listed as 'polymorph serum', but the majority of Shaw's manifest is simply coded 'need to know'. Weyland programming does not allow Erik to comment on it, or contemplate what significance it might have for their journey. If he is meant to know, the knowledge will be downloaded to him-- likely with the rest of the mission package.
Instead, he thinks of Charles-- articulate but earnest, enthusiastic yet somehow withdrawn. Erik has not personally observed many family units, but his small set of anecdotal data suggests the Xaviers are atypical. Charles and Raven seem to have a close rapport, yet they are half siblings. There is also a gap in age that would discourage their bond, yet their interactions flux ate between playful friendliness and an exasperated 'mothering' attitude on the part of the older sister. A cursory glance at the father's records show Brian had been married to one Sharon Xavier (nee Gilcrist) for over two decades, until her death five months prior. Yet _Charles_ is the sole product of that union-- not the blond, glittering girl who has chosen instead to take the name 'Darkholme'.
The impulse sparks (it almost seems like a literal electric charge in his cranial-organic hardware) to access the Weyland profiles he has been given full run of. All employees relinquish the pretense of privacy upon engagement, though Erik imagines few of them wish to dwell on the idea that the Ship's Assistant doesn't _just_ have access to medical files. Data complied on the crew ranges from psychiatric evaluations and personality profiles to dossiers from the Office of Civilian Loyalty, and everything in-between. Its all there, just at the android's metaphorical finger-tips, ostensibly provided that he might better manage the crew.
Yet Erik pauses, does not initiate. Research is the foundation for a path to understanding-- he wishes to understand Charles, ergo data should be collected. Leaving the sub-levels and engaging the security blocks behind him, the Ship's Assistant considers this, but still abstains from downloading. Even in this era of information, telepathic regulation and corporate espionage, humans cling to the illusion that they share information at their own will. Erik has never cared one way or the other before, but now both he and his EROS are certain this would qualify as a 'breach of trust'.
Perhaps, given the sheer accessibility of the data, Erik might eventually give in to his hard-wired inquisitiveness. It is at this moment, however, something else catches his attention. An extremely discrete inquiry to the Nephthys' mainframe, and one that has actually been in existence 1.5 minutes before the android registered it as anomalous. Simply a request for Erik's whereabouts, yes, but only two members of Weyland staff-- Ms. Frost and Captain Logan-- are authorized to view his precise location at any given time. The rest must put out an all-call to the server for him, and wait. A third sign-on, ghostly and only detectable through the minuscule flow it disturbs, has asked after his coordinates, and retreated just as quickly.
The current time is 01:40, deep in the watches of ship's night. Now moving into the crew-housing decks, Erik strides calmly (if briskly) through dimly light corridors, the ambient blue glow designed to encourage tenacious scientists to keep a more regular schedule. Nothing stirs in the audible human range, though the Nephthys always sings to Erik with the faintest of hums, like ancient recordings of whale-song. Because he is a scientist in his own way, he follows the appropriate methodology of backtracking the signal. More challenging than most, but by no means impossible.
The trace leads to the F Deck lounge, though Erik is already on his way there. It is logically unsound, but the EROS allies with him in 'feeling' that the answer is obvious. Sure enough, he is greeted by a gentle wave of warm, sparse piano melody, with string accompaniment. The cursory glance of an organic eye might dismiss the room as having been abandoned, but Erik's visual sensors are more than capable of detecting the form curled up in one of the shadowed, padded alcoves. The faintest wash of rose-gold light paints the room-- for the first time, the android understands why these are considered 'warm' colors.
Dressed in sleep-pants and t-shirt, Charles is somewhat at odd with the deep velvety pillows and chrome designed to provide 'public privacy' for couples socializing in deep space. There is a tense set to his jaw and a narrowing of the eyes (currently glaring at the ceiling) that lend the boy's face a more mature, determined look. At the same time, Charles has his arms around his own body in a sort of self-hug, lip bitten and hair tousled like a child in a snit.
"Charles?" Erik inquires. He stops a good two or three strides from the human boy, carefully observing what might be a desire for distance. Charles sits up on his elbow, turning towards the android a face that melts quickly into a welcoming (relieved?) smile.
"Hey." For once, the vague syllabic greeting does not grate on Erik's grammar programming. "I was looking for you."
"Indeed," the Ship's Assistant replies, closing the distance but allowing just a little to remain. From here, he can see the boy's is emblazoned with the greek symbol "pi", laid over a cartoonish drawing of the baked good. "Your skills are not unimpressive-- your masking, in particular, is adept."
"Raven says so, too. She says I like hacking because I'm passive-aggressive. Always 'subtly politicking and manipulating'." The smile is now a full fledged grin, but Erik can detect a redness about those astonishing blue eyes. The boy's free hand rests loosely on his stomach, lower arm wrapped in a length of OrganoPlast bandage Erik knows was not there six hours before. "With direct confrontation, I'm not so good."
"It's nothing." Young Xavier says this with a wave of the offending appendage. Clearly, he believes this to be true, though both Erik's logic and EROS functions register it as a blatant falsehood. The wrapping is sloppy and inexpert-- no wonder, as it was applied to Charles' dominant hand. Why wasn't one of the med pods consulted? They are more than capable of seeing to even minor injuries with a minimum of fuss, not to mention Erik's basic medical programming. "Really," Charles reiterates, trying on a sheepish expression, "Nothing big. Promise."
"The size of the wound is immaterial," the Assistant says, trying to modulate tones that are both gentle and firm. "OrganoPlast is used for punctures of the epidermis vulnerable to infection and bloodborne pathogens. Where did you sustain this injury?"
The last could be considered an unnecessary revision of the question-- where else but Alexandria, away from the Nephthys and under McCoy's supposedly capable supervision?
Of all the variable responses Erik might have predicted, Charles displays one he has in no way considered. With a blatant sound of distaste, the boy rolls his eyes and flops back down against the cushions.
"I don't _need_ a babysitter." Genuine anger behind the words, deepening the vocal range, but it is at least diffuse. Erik recognizes (and experiences a strange sense of relief) that it is not directed at him.
"I was not suggesting you did."
('Will you look after him?'
Rare artifacts. Prized examples of beauty or scarcity.
Gamely, Erik ignores the data-ghost. "I was merely concerned for your wellbeing. I am not your guardian, and you are not obligated to disclose the information." There is a long pause, in which those cyan eyes search the android's face. Whatever indicators or expression Charles' seeks, Erik would like to replicate and project it. As it is, his EROS is having enough difficulty reading the myriad of emotions and behavioral cues it is receiving from the adolescent.
"Alright." Charles nods, smile smaller but somehow very raw. He makes no motion to indicate he is receptive, yet _something_ must trigger Erik to fully enter the young man's personal space. He takes a seat beside the boy, and it is oddly gratifying to feel the slim, boney shoulder bump companionably against his own. Reaching behind him, young Xavier pulls an object forth from the ever-present messenger bag. "Guess what I found in port?"
It is a black plastic sphere, cupped easily in those slim, elegant hands. Even before he can see the markings, Erik is alerted to the faint clicking and sloshing sounds emanating from within the globe. Sure enough, the top is stamped with the white outline of the '8' billiard ball.
"On a space station of eleven square miles and a transient population of just under five thousand, you managed to not only locate, but also purchase, a novelty item that was last 'in fashion' over a decade ago." It is not a question, as the evidence is clearly visible before them both. The Assistant cannot, however, stem the slight upward inflection at the end of the sentence. He wonders if Charles made his purchase before or after McCoy somehow allowed his young charge to come to harm.
A shrug from his companion. "Mom always says-- _said_--" Charles' face darkens, briefly but perceptively. "-- that a good shopping tripis like a successful hunt."
Erik does not quite see the correlation between blood-sport activity and consumer culture, but he is able to share in Charles' quiet pleasure over an unexpected find. Those two pale hands hold out the toy, and the android takes it in one of his own. Xavier begins happily elaborating on the origins of the device as a clairvoyant medium, and other associated trivia.
With his free hand, Erik very gently brushes a thumb over the bandage on the young man's arm. While not done expertly, the OrganoPlast is correctly applied, and the seal is sound.
His careful grip lingers 13.6 seconds longer than is medically necessary.
Meredith's Dorky Notes:
+pax- Latin, 'peace'. Also the name of its representative goddess.
+inuksuk- a monolith or cairn, built by native peoples in Northern Canada, Greenland and surrounding areas. Made by piling large stones atop one another to form distinct shapes, such as the outlines of a human figure, or a three-stone threshold.
+risorius- the tiny bundle of muscle fibers at the corner of the human mouth, quirked to create the facial expression of a wry or 'insincere' smile.
+The original 'dye' part of the Magic 8 Ball was conceived of for 'spirit writing', by Mary Carter, of Cincinnati. Go figure. ^_^;;
Chapter 6: Failsafes and Natural Sympathies
... For anyone who remembers this story, I do in fact have medical personnel standing by if you should experience shock or some sort of heart failure. The bad news is, I'll feel really guilty if you have health issues-- the good news is, all the EMTs are David 8's. ;-)
I have nothing to say for myself, save that I really appreciate you taking the time to read my story. If I could bother you a bit more for thoughts or kudos, I'd be forever in your debt. Hopefully this chapter is at least on-par with the others.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Erik is unable to obtain further details or clarification from Charles that evening. Whatever occurred in Alexandria, the boy has said his word on it, and will not elaborate on the matter no matter how subtly he is questioned. He allows the Ship's Assistant to check his vitals and promises not to worry at the OrganoPlast bandage, but Erik quickly abandons any direct interrogative plan. While suffering the brief examination, Charles once again mentions his aversion to being 'babied', and Erik has been sent away by others for far less comprehensible offenses. Nothing in Charles' body language or voice phenomena indicate any ill will, however. In fact, once his health and safety have been established, he is just as relaxed as he has been during any of his other night "hang-outs" with the android. Young Xavier is a charming and endearing host-- a term Erik chooses in light of the boy's careful attention to his companion's interest and engagement. Certainly, he is more 'present' than his father, who often lapses out of conversations even while being spoken to directly. Charles watches Erik's face a great deal and, while many have complained that David 8 models have a 'creepy' or 'vacuous' expression, this human seems to respond to cues Erik himself is unaware of. Perhaps they are only things the young telepath thinks he sees… but such behavior is still a new and strangely gratifying experience.
For a time, they discuss the sparse reports recently released on Weyland's Europa expedition. Charles is obviously staying far from the personal deliberately. While Erik must take the boy's word he is fine (after all, vital readings are well within acceptable range), the Assistant cannot help but notice how tightly Charles is curled into the cushioned alcove, nor the occasional tremble in voice and frame. Erik leaves his side only briefly returning with two cups of apple juice and sitting once more side-by-side, arms flush. There is hardly a need for the second cup as, while all David models six and up can 'eat' small quantities of food for the appearance of normalization, the consumption is in no way required. Charles clearly knows this, rolling those singular blue eyes with theatrical sufferance. Never the less, he drinks the first without complaint, and consumes the second absent-mindedly when Erik passes it to him during one of the boy's particularly rapturous speculations.
Very little save speculation can come from the information released on Europa, at least for now. The deep-sea exploratory survey was supposed to evaluate the Jovian moon for possible utilization in the fishing industry. Such hatcheries, and even algae farming, have been successful in the Martian polar regions, and the ever-growing population of the solar colonies must keep constant vigilance in regards to food supply. There's no denying that the team's original report stated, in no uncertain terms, that 'unnaturally regular remains' had been found in the southern region of the frozen satellite. These were said to be massive ruins, trapped in the reservoir ocean between the moon's iron core and icily armored surface. It's highest points (the pilot used the fanciful term 'minarets' or 'very acute pyramids') extended into the eternal glacial layer, towering above a foundation in what the geologist described as a type of costal shelf. Geometrical, despite centuries of abandonment and satellite-wide tidal flexing which, as Europa's only form of geological activity, actually allows the crust to wander freely between the magnetic poles. While the crew had been foolish (or perhaps excited) enough to send the hurried report over company bandwidth rather than petition for a truly secure path, they were in no way imbeciles-- the non-human origin of the structure was never stated explicitly.
Self-appointed watchdogs within Weyland Industries had the 1,205 word document posted to the IntraSol'Net within the business day-- 'yesterday' morning by Nephthys' current sync with Alexandrian time-keeping. Fifteen hours later, the company's private cyber-enforcers had virtually erased it from existence, frying 'complicit' servers and distractedly compensating those legitimate storage sites that could not be held responsible for user content. Charles, of course, has already downloaded and encrypted the information on his tablet, having read and discussed it with Hank while they were waiting to see Raven off. He is quick to assure the Ship's Assistant that he bounced his access off an ambiguous, public wireless server instead of using the reliable (and obviously Weyland-controlled) Nephthys network. The news has not even hit traditional media outlets, which have long since learned their lessons in regards to both the hasty issuance of retractions and general public disinterest.
A decade prior, news of a possible find on Eris had caused a ripple of existential pandemonium in mainstream media, with sensational reports and photos of a supposed 'icehenge' on the small, trans-Neptunian object. That particular incident had set the pattern for any and all future finds that chanced to fly in the face of conventional science. Weyland Industries, IntraSol and the United Earth Corps had laid the 'misunderstanding' down to a play of shadow and depth caused by the dwarf-planet's eccentric orbit. The initial reports Eris reports have long vanished, as will even the most vague hints of irregularities on Europa.
In this most recent case, as with all the others, it is already generally accepted that-- despite being highly qualified specialists-- the survey team 'misinterpreted' the evidence, carelessly disregarding any sensationalism their report might cause. Neither Erik nor Charles are surprised to find, upon checking the few recent news-feeds, that all officers from the mission have been suspended. Presently, even this data is being buried under other stories, as Terra and her colonies move on to the always fascinating subject of whether a certain starlet's sexy little tiger-tail enhancement was actually cloned from the endangered beast.
Erik's personal conclusions, such as they are, are not much better. Documents regarding the original report still exist on some of the more sophisticated dark-chat networks, but their authenticity is difficult to verify and the download links obliged to be convoluted. He has scanned many of the same sources Charles has, and they seem to be in agreement that any artifacts are more likely an indicator of some sort of outpost presence, rather than that of non-human life originating within the Sol System. According to Xavier, his father has long believed in a cover-up regarding the Eris find and hopes those records-- along with anything else germane-- will be declassified for mission staff once the Nephthys reaches the Kuiper Belt. The Ship's Assistant finds this probable, but is also aware that Weyland Industries will never reveal a single line of sensitive data not directly related to the Sirius Project itself. If Brian Xavier is hoping for some sort of wide commentary on exo-archeological conspiracy, he will be sorely disappointed. The android's own mission data will be downloaded from a secure server only after the crew is safely past Pluto. Any… peripheral information not strictly vetted by the company has been gained through those sub viral networks he can access without coming up against any major corporate firewalls.
"I didn't even want to try slipping through Nephthys security-- not for something that sensitive or external." The boy gives Erik an impish grin. "I bet you could teach me a few new tricks."
"Indeed." Without prompting from his EROS, the android finds himself briefly utilizing all twelve muscles involved in a zygomatic smile. His young friend reacts not in dismay or distress, but with a conspiratorial increase in closeness. "I am sure you could do the same for me," he says with factual certainty. "Unfortunately, my systems would interpret teaching you any aggressive access coding as…" For a moment, he stares into the middle distance, accessing the specific regulations, "Quote, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and the exposure of said to possible deviant material, unquote."
"You can get porn for free on the legit 'net. Isn't that delinquent enough?" Charles says, rolling his eyes. Then, more philosophically, "I watched some, once. The whole thing seemed a bit… undignified. And messy."
Erik actually hesitates here. As Ship's Assistant, he has been programmed with a few more 'personal' settings and functions associated with Companion models. On one or two occasions, those with proper administrative access have ordered him to 'make himself useful'-- but that hardly seems appropriate to share with an early adolescent. Instead, he settles for: "Humans produce many bodily fluids even during mundane activities. It is not an unexpected carry-over into reproductive function."
A light, countertenor giggle reaches his audio sensors. "Say 'bodily fluids' again."
Erik obliges, taking time to properly experience laughter that is not unfathomable, isolating, or at his own expense. Charles leans against the synthetic being as he rides out his mirth. They have not moved from where the boy was initially ensconced in the conversation alcove, and the sound makes the confines seem more private and pleasing. They must make a strange sight, the boy and android; shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, with the Magic 8 ball resting loosely in their combined grasp.
After a moment or two, Charles sobers. He looks at his companion with a thoughtful, almost adult expression especially incongruous given his recent sophomoric amusement. His hand reaches up, stopping just short of touching Erik's chest, where the Weyland logo is emblazoned on his uniform. Under the utilitarian weave of cloth there is, of course, no heartbeat.
"Does it bother you?"
The android says nothing, his EROS archiving the fact he was anticipating Charles' touch without the assumption of maintenance or violence. Touch for the sake of touch? It is a concept he is far more accustomed to in regards to the humans under his care, for they claim as their mammalian inheritance to be a tactile species.
After a beat, Charles clarifies, "Does it bother you that you're limited by so many failsafes? I mean, protocols that keep you from doing things you might want to do?"
"All failsafes exist for the protection of the human race." It is an appropriate, rote response. Neither one of them mentions the fact that, by all rights, most AI engineers would be appalled that Erik can even consider how and when to avoid company firewalls and search blocks.
"Yeah, and I'm tagged and Null for their protection, too," Xavier says morosely. While Erik is still assimilating this perspective, Charles presses further. "Let's say I told you a secret." He tosses the Magic 8 ball distractedly. "Maybe just something stupid-- kid's stuff. If it conflicted with what your protocols define as 'the safety of a minor', you'd have to tell my dad. Tattle on me. Even if you didn't want to."
Charles is looking away from Erik now-- despite the android's processing power, it is clear young Xavier does not expect him to answer right away. Erik compares several different sets of parameters, and wonders if perhaps his reluctance to simply read through Charles' file (as was within his purview as Assistant) could not be classified as the beginnings of 'loyalty'. That is strange, because even Weyland Industries could not program fealty-- every David 8 obeys their programmed limits not because obedience is an innate characteristic, but because system parameters dictate he must. True 'want'-- beyond the few vague preferences developed due to their organic components-- is not supposed to be within any AI's capability.
In the early years of activation, Erik had found it difficult to reinterpret some of his policy programming to allow latitude for his… inclinations. The Asimov coding is, of course, untouchable. He could more easily remove his spine than extract that essential kernel of syntax, but such hard-and-fast directives are limited. Despite his changeless exterior and mechanical components, Erik is a learning and changing sentience. He must be, in order to function-- and the chief concern of the oversight committee has always been the David model's organic component. It is the mission of organic matter to replicate, to replace dying cells.
And to evolve.
Incidental experience has allowed Erik to find some gaps-- 'loopholes', as humans might say-- in which he can define his own behavior. He does not know if other David 8's have accomplished this, as he has never encountered another of his kind. Like his name, it is something oddly intrinsic, which he does not devote much thought.
"Personal motivation is difficult for any AI to comprehend," he tells Charles at last. He is uncertain as to the exact amount of time elapsed during this processing, but it must be over forty seconds, with enough decimal places to make for appalling runtime. "You have stated that you do not need a babysitter, and I will do my best to comply with that, insofar as my designated function will allow."
"I'm sorry," the boy says, briefly touching the back of the android's hand. The synthetic skin is set at a default human human range of 97.2-98.6 degrees fahrenheit, yet Charles' fingertips seem much warmer. It is not an unpleasant sensation. "I didn't mean to give you an order. And I didn't mean to yell. I shouldn't get mad at you for doing your job and, if you were hurt, I'd ask the same questions of you. How and why."
"If I am damaged," Erik points out, "it is of far less consequence."
"I don't know about that." Another somewhat rebellious shrug of those boney shoulders. "And I'd still ask. I'd be concerned."
Concern. 'A matter,' his EROS reminds him, 'that engages a person's attention, interest, or care, or that affects a person's welfare or happiness. Solicitude.' There are so many gradations of linguistic meaning, so many tangental topics to this conversation. If Charles were to tell Erik a secret, that would be a confidence. A confidant is a close acquaintance… a friend. There are too many variables; intangibles like 'trust' and 'loyalty', and understanding at an emotional level Erik is not designed to calculate for. Some of this many need to be defragmented later.
"To answer your original question," the Ship's assistant says, making a point of eye contact with his companion. "The scenario you outlined is possible. I cannot override the programming pertaining to crew safety. However, the scenario is also avoidable. My recommendation would be that, should you wish to confer information which could be considered delinquent, you should wait until the Nephthys has cleared the Kuiper Belt. After that, the servers will no longer be in communication with Earth or any IntraSol outpost. Any ambiguous breaches of protocol would be logged for examination by a senior staff member. From a theoretical standpoint, an enterprising young man-- and here I merely state fact-- with sufficient programming skills could then alter those logs before anyone had a chance to review them."
Charles' smile is nothing short of brilliant. Erik has encountered poetic, luminous qualities assigned to eyes and smiles in literature, but he has never experienced it himself. It is not actual light, of course, but the metaphor now seems a part of logical progression, rather than arbitrary human whimsy.
"You don't want me to get in trouble," Xavier says, pressing his cheek against Erik's shoulder. His eyes close, weight settling firmly against the adamantium and synth-flesh construction. The input from Erik's epidermis and olfactory sensors is positive, not inducing system stress or discomfort. Charles smells of faint sweat, saline, and some hygienic additives like Ammoninium Lauryl Sulfate-- green apple shampoo?
"I am as I was programmed," he echoes his EROS. It is his job to empathize with and anticipate the needs of his human masters, is it not?
"Oh," Charles says, as innocently wicked as any any Shakespearian Puck, "I think there's much more to you than programming, my friend." And, before the android can protest, he hands over the plastic toy once more. "Shake it."
Erik does so, and the Magic 8 ball (which is only a probability exercise, with 20 possible outcomes) returns:
"My sources say 'yes'."
Though they spend two more hours together, the pair does not go through with Erik's initial plans for the evening. The extra chores from Dr. McTaggart, as well as whatever excitement occurred on board Alexandria, have swallowed a significant portion of the ship's 'sleep cycle'. There simply isn't time to show Charles the helm, and the much-discussed Eta Carinae images. This should be something they can linger over, as the boy is often a more adroit and imaginative observer than many adult professionals Erik has encountered. Xavier adores color and light-- the interplay of physics and artistic appreciation. He is also surprisingly philosophical for his age, something Erik is less and less certain is caused simply by isolation from his peer group.
Miss Frost is, of course, a great student of what she refers to as 'human folly'. Occasionally, she will throw out a tart, cynical comment for the android's consideration, but she by no means possesses Charles general enthusiasm and outlook. Dr. Stark had a manic curiosity-- based on Erik's admittedly limited interactions-- but it was bolstered by a self-assurance and lack of sensitivity that alienated even other humans on the mission. The physicist's requests had been rapid, complex, and sometimes highly illogical, but he had provided the Ship's Assistant with a working definition of the word 'cocky'. Charles may occasionally engage in adolescent bravado, but he retains an earnest compassion Erik has rarely observed elsewhere. Moreover, there is a somehow weary quality to his innocence; a caution the android very much understands.
'Once bitten, twice shy,' is another bit of 'folk wisdom' stored in his language archives. Though rife with human hyperbole, Erik finds the logic behind it sound. It cannot be denied that behavior-- even of the most positive type-- will be altered by a sentience in order to prevent further unpleasant experience. Humans, animals, and synthetic lifeforms all weigh decisions in this manner. Even labimals, stripped of many 'natural' instincts from their genetic contributors, still retain this tendency.
Erik has been processing these new intangibles-- 'emotional experiences'-- in tandem with his EROS, all while keeping up a light commentary with Charles as they watch a short documentary on the boy's tablet. Super-symmetry versus multi-verse theory is fascinating, but he is not at all put out as Charles' comments lapse into longer silences. There is a slight decrease in body-temperature, breathing evens, and the telepath eventually falls asleep beside him. He is glad that the remaining anxiety has left Charles enough to allow for this first stage of somnolence. For now, the Ship's Assistant does not move-- he is reluctant to disturb the boy, given his problematic sleeping patterns. Young Xavier's lips are parted, heartbeat sweet and regular, tilted so his head is almost resting on Erik's shoulder.
Eventually, the eye-movement behind those delicate, closed lids ceases. In 'slow wave' sleep, Charles will be far less responsive to slight disturbances and stimuli. Once again, Erik encounters a coding and impulse conflict. This recreation room, and Deck F in general, have been regularly appropriated for their evenings by virtue of the fact Hank McCoy is currently the only party berthed on this level. This will not remain true for long but, for now, there is only the young scientist, and he poses no threat to Charles. Catching sight of the OrganoPlast bandage, the android quickly revises parameters. Natural prediction models indicate McCoy is not a danger, save from sheer inability to look after another being. The Nephthys is nothing like Alexandria-- it is a safe, controlled environment in which Charles has already functioned without incident. He is once more 'checked in' for crew attendance and biometric monitoring. No concrete threat exists. The seal on Charles' bandage cannot be broken or dislodged accidentally, though the Ship's Assistant does preform a visual check. Never the less, Erik finds himself as disinclined to leave the boy here as he is to wake him.
He reaches forward, perhaps for tactile follow-up, but finds the fine organic nerve-endings on his fingers instead brushing against Charles' smooth, pale cheek. Freckles-- in a variety of sizes and shades-- decorate the elegant nasal dorsum and cheekbones. There is even a small cluster of three near Xavier's left eye, improbably arranged like the stars of Orion's Belt. A very faint tingling sensation seems to be spreading within the organic components of Erik's system; hands, lips, ears, and even slight increase in general facial temperature. (He has no blood; is this the vestigial instinct for a blush?) While Charles has been very free with their physical interactions, Erik should not be initiating any touch while there is no body language or verbal response to indicate consent. Moreover, these moments lingering over Charles in natural repose are a waste of time and resources. It is not a productivity impact the android can justify for long, all conflicting safety impulses aside.
Though Charles' possessions are equally unlikely to be interfered with, Erik still takes a moment to tuck the tablet and Magic 8 ball in the boy's voluminous messenger-bag. In the process, he spots several books of actual paper, the beloved geometry crystals, music device, and a brightly colored box proclaiming 'TWISTER!'. Charles did disclose that he discovered his fortune-telling toy in a junk shop off Alexandria's main concourse. Clearly, he found a few other treasures as well. The paper books are some what surprising in their sheer rarity, but in no way out of keeping with Xavier's personality. Charles has a well-developed appreciation for the past. It occurs to Erik's logic sensors that his companion might well enjoy Lawrence of Arabia, if he has not seen it already.
The boy's stripped bathrobe has been abandoned nearby. Carefully, the Ship's Assistant lays the boy back against the cushions, ensures he is well-blanketed, and leaves the room in studied silence.
Erik's processors switch primary focus to a triage of remaining maintenance tasks, but a small subroutine begins combing the Nephthys' literary database. He has never had a particular interest in 19th Century literature, but Dr Grey had a penchant for it and he is able to find turn of phrase he recalls from one of her cafeteria discussions. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Erye (1847): "People talk of natural sympathies; I have heard of good genii; there are grains of truth in the wildest fable."
The solicitude for one another's welfare,
('I didn't mean to give you an order. … I'd still ask. I'd still be concerned.')
loyalty without concrete source,
('You don't want me to get in trouble.')
and an intangible draw for companionship.
Erik (who will, to the world at large, always be 131-7-142119YRK) is a sophisticated and delicate system, which has been functioning for 17.36 years. He is not programmed to presume friendship with any member of the species he was designed to serve and, despite lengthy missions, rarely has enough contact with any individual to claim much familiarity, even by professional standards. In the last 72 hours with Charles, he has encountered more new data for his EROS than in any one previous extra-solar mission. He has plenty of processing power to spare, but that doesn't make any of these experiences (or their analysis) less novel.
The following Alpha Shift ('morning' is a colloquialism even the scientist's cling to), Erik is treated to Charles' smile and wave from across the cafeteria. The Ship's Assistant is occupied with the sudden influx of arriving personnel: accepting thumb-print scans and logging personal possessions as deck-hands check in and make a predicable bee-line for the food processors. Ms Frost is overseeing the affair with a air of imperious tolerance that which-- by its very gravity-- manages to curtail the usual chaos into something more like a parade of minor unrest. Dr. McTaggart has come over to remind Erik that her shipment of micro-chisels has yet to arrive, and Dr. Shaw breaks off from his involved argument with Dr. Xavier to shout across the room about his own lab equipment and upkeep of said. Charles, already being ignored by the adults at his table, goes back to his orange juice-- but he prolongs eye-contact with with the android, blue eyes conveying a sparkle even without other facial indicators. A look of commiseration passes between them.
And Charles winks.
* * * * * * * * *
They are the salt-spacers-- those with the physical, psychological and technical stamina to make a living working in space. 'Roughnecks', Emma curses under her breath, but many of them would take that as a compliment. Captain Logan, who makes no secret of his own distain for Earth-bound 'lotus-eaters', certainly does. Their presence, however, will require a careful recalibration of ship-board social dynamics and monitoring as the two groups become accustomed to one another. The cacophony of their arrival rarely makes for a good impression. They tend to arrive in a drove, having wrung every possible moment of their leave pursuing various diversions in port. At lunch (during which Charles is notably absent), Erik overhears Brian Xavier refer to the spacers as 'a necessary evil'. Dr. Shaw's evaluation, while predictable, is far less kind.
While Erik has been programmed to understand that many stereotypes are false and/or offensive (certainly neither Emma nor Charles embody the creepy, almost alien vacuousness telepaths are assigned), there are some undeniably common characteristics among spacers as a group. In addition to being far less quiet or inhibited than Weyland staff, they do not censor their language or adhere to the very strict set of predefined linguistics called 'political correctness'. They are surprisingly non-territorial-- having, in many cases, practically grown up in the confines of freighters. While they do not have the same expectation of privacy as on-worlders, they guard their few possessions jealously. Since many will work together on several different projects in the course of a career, they tend not to select sexual partners within their own population, which can lead to misunderstandings should a more professional staff member decide to 'stoop' to a liaison. Spacers often have separate emotional relationships ('work-husband', 'work-wife') and, if consummation does occur, it happens only during leave. Conflicts, personal rifts, and 'taking sides' is something they discourage within their own community, as any two (or three, or four) parties ending a relationship must maintain enough civility to work together. As is the nature of humanity, grudges never the less exist. It is not uncommon to see two spacers who are perfectly amicable during working hours try to maim, or even kill, one another should their paths cross on leave.
In this ultra-modern era, gender-based job discrimination is technically illegal, but female spacers know pregnancy can be a risk to their careers. The UEC maintains strict regulations regarding birth licenses yet, incongruously (at lead to Erik's logic centers), also harshly limits access to prevention tools and related services anywhere other than Earth. Some dark-chat pundits say this was to discourage women from going in to space at all. Regardless, there is a brisk black-market trade in those items abundantly available on Terra and her colonies, but the price is predictably exploitive. It is therefore not uncommon to hear the term 'Lady Watcher' or 'Beau Peep' in regards to certain female spacers who may, in fact, have a significant collection of men and/or women whose sexual interactions she observes (and possibly orchestrates) for the mutual enjoyment of all. The term, while perplexing to many Terrans and colonists, is not actually an insult. If politicos on Earth intended to keep women from going into space, they have failed in a spectacular manner.
"You just have to," as one lady roughneck put it, "get creative."
And they are creative, regardless of the stereotypes casting them as empty-headed rabble-rousers best distracted with physical labor. There are some who have undeniably been forced into space life by their anti-social or violent tendencies, but they are not the majority the Terran media so loves to suggest. Yes, some are wanted on Earth, but even more have chosen hardship because they themselves wish to stay far away from the mother-world. They want the freedom of "the black", or least the anonymity. Disaffected intellectuals, social outcasts, anti-establishment types, dreamers, adventure-seekers, political radicals (from both ends of the spectrum), and functional paranoids can all be counted among their number.
"The Big Empty," as Captain Logan says, "make equals of us all."
Erik has worked with many of these individuals before, especially since Captain Logan himself commands great loyalty. The burly spacer has many compatriots willing to sign on simply because he is in charge of a mission, and Ms Frost has her own more grudging followers, who appreciate her fair and forthright standards . The Ship's Assistant has no particular opinion about most of them, aside from a statistician's pleasure in known quantities. St. John Allerdyce and Jubilation Lee are two such Nephthys veterans, and their presence is not unwelcome. They both add gregarious, enthusiastic personalities to morale and community calculations, though Allerdyce does have some political 'malcontent' remarks in his file.
Victor Creed, Mortimer Toynbee, and Nathaniel Essex are decidedly less positive factors. The former two are unfortunate blueprints for every cliche about spacers-- possessed of too little intelligence and too much dedication to their chosen speciality. (Toynbee handles off-ship environment equipment but, as far as Erik can tell, Creed's primary occupation seems lie in movement of heavy machinery from one end of a ship and/or planet side base to another.) Essex is of a more cunning mentality, and therefore less predictable.
It is he who manages to catch the Ship's Assistant somewhat off-guard, long after the 'day's final mealtime. The hub of activity has moved from cafeteria check-in to the cargo bay and, as Erik has no need for food, there is little excuse for him to wander away as some of the other hands do. They aren't gone long, grabbing protein shakes, sugar-shock bars, and carbocubes before Ms. Frost notices their absence, but even that would be enough time for Erik to gently inform Charles that there will be no night-watch peace for them this cycle. There are simply too many tasks which must be completed before they leave 'dry dock', and the android will be required for much of the mainframe interface and higher parabolic calculations.
Charles' tablet is currently on the Nephthys wi-fi, but Erik is uncertain as to whether or not a slightly hacked message insert would be considered an unwelcome invasion of privacy. Essex is thus able to impinge considerably on Erik's 'personal space', but the android quickly turns and steps aside before any physical contact can occur.
"What's the matter, Pinocchio?" the human asks, dark hair gleaming with grease in the unforgiving bay lights. "Daydreaming about being a real boy?" Erik is capable of a lightning-fast remark, but he hears an intake a breath behind him, and knows someone else is about to speak.
"Are you fucking kidding me, Essex?" asks a female spacer, her blade-cool aesthetics only heightened by her painful cover-alls. After a moment of facial analysis, the Ship's Assistant identifies her as Oyama Yuriko, an unknown quantity. "You've been at this for two decades, and you can't let go of that luddite shit?"
"I apologize if you felt there was a delay, sir," Erik says evenly, holding out his own tablet full of complex algorithms. "Are you ready to compare these with your XNAV calculations?"
"Just because I have to work with these things, doesn't mean I have to like them," is the crewman's response to Oyama. To Erik, he says, "I was ready for them two minutes ago, stop dragging your feet."
On this, the android refrains from commenting-- he has been waiting for Essex an additional three minutes, always assuming that the human is being truthful. All David 8's are designed with an exponential number of schemas to cope with the endless possibilities encountered in space. Deciphering human interaction and extrapolating for future morale requires more processing power, but it is not a system strain. The simple truth is, Erik frequently operates below maximum capacity; a feature which, he understands, is also meant to soothe human perceptions. No one wishes, after all, to be consistently out-preformed by an appliance.
Muttering a pejorative, Essex snatches the tablet. "Look," he says, speaking over and around the android. "I'm not going to apologize for my opinions. These things are a menace. Why do you think they scrap perfectly functioning units after twenty-five years? It ain't a cost saving measure, that's for sure. Even the penny-pinchers those damn 'bots are dangerous. Humans First!" This he finishes off with a disturbing salute.
"Way to live down to the lowest common denominator, pal," chimes a passing Alex Summers, who lifts the arm of his eco-skeleton in the faint sketch of a mock fist-bump.
"Aim low and you won't be disappointed, I guess," Yuriko rolls her eyes. She turns swiftly, joining a group of personnel carefully moving missile-sized tubes of Xenon gas towards the engine deck.
"I suppose it's a good thing you," Essex pokes Erik's chest deliberately, "can't be disappointed."
Erik thinks of Charles, and of the significant increase in productivity should Essex simply let the android do the calculations. A Ship's Assistant will never replace any of the human crew, who are-- by virtue of being human-- far more creative and adaptable than he. Still, there are some tasks Erik could perform much more quickly if pride were not a factor. There will be no time this evening-- no time at all. It is an uncomfortable feeling, for his EROS was designed to analyze and anticipate human behavior, not grapple with any vague 'emotional' echoes of his own.
He waits patiently while Essex checks the data, and pretends not to notice the man hurriedly correcting his own seventeenth decimal place.
"It *is* nice," Erik says softly, "not to understand disappointment at all."
+'Zygomatic smile'-- i.e., a genuine smile. It actually takes one more muscle to smile (12) than it does to frown (11).
+X-ray Pulsar-Based Navigation (or XNAV) is a theoretical technique for finding one's way in space. One of the major challenges for interstellar travel would lie not only in the vast distances themselves, but in the lack of 'landmarks' to help navigate. Like GPS, a spacecraft would use pulsar frequencies to triangulate their position. NASA is currently doing research on this method, and the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts both carried plaques with visual and binary representations of nearby pulsars, should any extraterrestrial life wish to trace them back to their origin. (Jury's still out on whether or not this was a Good Life Choice. ^_~)
Chapter 7: Departure ('Setting Sail')
I thought I was going to have more of 'All Empires' finished first, but I somehow ended up with this instead. Hopefully no one around here is still under the misimpression that I'm in charge. ^_~
As always, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to read my story. I owe so many people for all their wonderful comments and kudos-- I couldn't keep going without you!
Brief Overly-Paranoid Disclaimer: I have absolutely nothing against digital technology as an artistic medium. I admire anyone gifted with any type of artistic talent, and I know that hours go in to each piece no matter what your preferred methodology. All futuristic comments about traditional vs new wave art are inspired solely by the fact that sometimes society throws the baby out with the bathwater. I think there's room for everyone to enjoy their choice of expression! <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The UEC Nephthys leaves dry dock at 23:04 Universal Sol Time, date and destination classified "Gold Delta Access Only" by Weyland Securities administration. This marks the beginning of all official record-keeping for the Sirius mission, and one of the final crew members Erik marks as active is Captain Logan himself. Anticipation of his arrival has been potent, almost a presence in and of itself, and it is sometimes amusing to watch those who know him by only reputation have their first encounter with the man. Compactly built and muscular, the human male is never the less of only about average height, speaking in the slow yet somehow nondescript drawl common to those born in space. His close comrades occasionally refer to him as 'the Wolverine', an appellation which-- while it still contains illogical anthropomorphism-- Erik must concede is adept. To disregard Logan in favor of more obvious creatures of strength like Victor is a grave tactical error, even from a solely social standpoint. The Captain is piercingly clever, watchful, fiercely loyal, and possessed of a carefully leashed violence.
Logan is fresh off an only slightly less classified mission on Callisto, with no 'shore-leave' in between-- just the way he likes it. He swaggers through the docking bay with his usual watchful confidence, favoring Ms. Frost with an almost vulpine smile around his ubiquitous cigar. Old-time spacers still tell stories about the single hapless Weyland lackey foolish enough to ask the man not to smoke. Logan claps Erik on the shoulder companionably, though with more force than many humans could handle, and says he is glad to be working with him again.
"You in particular, but any David 8, really. Those David 5's," he says, shaking his head in a manner the current Ship's Assistant is unable to interpret. "Man. At least I know I can count on you."
Erik has never met one of his own kind, much less an earlier model, and he does not waste processing power attempting to interpret what is surely only the first of the Captain's many non-sequiturs during the mission. He focuses on transporting Logan's modest luggage, and then on the far more arduous task of tracking down any labor staff who have yet to sign their medical, life-insurance, accidental death/dismemberment, and/or hazard waivers (sometimes, all four). Spacers are notorious for their hatred of paperwork, despite the fact said term became obsolete in the literal sense long ago.
The android does spare one small subroutine for consideration of the most recent internal Weyland memos. Based on these, he is given to understand that both models Five and Six are being phased out, with Sevens being slotted into the less complex positions as the company steps up production on David 8's to compensate. Most certainly, David 5's are outdated and cumbersome and, since the Office of Technological Asset Control maintains a strict population cap for androids, they must be deactivated if new units are to be made. All the same, it has crossed Erik's 'subconscious' layer processors more than once that he-- indeed, all his kind-- has been assigned an artificial mortality far more limited than the actual longevity and endurance of their systems. Because so many of their functions are still dependent on computerization, no David model-- no matter how advanced-- is capable of having a true subconscious in the human sense of the term. That is, a space for thoughts are feelings to which the primary sentience remains oblivious, while still receiving strong motivations and impressions. They are said to have perfect perception of objective reality, to a degree which would drive their human creators mad. Again, Erik can refer to no experience save his own, but it seems to him far less sane to have a portion of oneself hidden, and to be capable of ignoring plain facts.
He cannot, for example, ever escape or 'forget' the fact that he himself will face mandatory deactivation, though he still has over thirty-percent of 'life' remaining-- 7.64 years, to be precise. It is only logical that some of the more imaginative, organic sections of his operating system have speculated about this ultimate truncation. Erik's limbic system is the most complex of his four neural layers, with over 70% organic interface to mimic mammalian thought processes, problem-solving, and the dynamic interactions required to function in any social group. His basal ganglia (or 'reptile brain') on the other hand, is almost wholly mechanized-- to avoid aggression and keep his understanding of hierarchy and his place within it very strict. According to both the official Weyland specs and the David 8 manual, Erik can process and decode experiential fear, but lacks the hypothalamus necessary to react with a human's 'fight-or-flight' reflex. Certainly, he has never assigned any value to his own existence, even on the most dangerous of missions. The Asimov coding prevents self-preservation; the hardware itself should prevent fear of death.
All the same, there does occur some small, atypical looping of data when he considering the single Terminus Station on Io-- the inevitable 'final stop' of every android's existence.
With Logan aboard, there is a perceptible increase in labor productivity. This more than makes up for the tension Erik must defuse between the Captain and the Mission Coordinator. The Assistant himself must always exercise caution and prepare multiple solutions in this regard; both individuals in question are highly intelligent, and thus more likely to sense (and take umbrage at) being managed. Added to this already familiar dynamic is a new variable, in the form of Logan's scrappy new apprentice. Marie is playful and gregarious once her initial shyness fades into familiarity with her surroundings. She actually smiles at Erik, and asks him any number of questions to help her 'learn as she goes'. She is quite young-- only a year or so older than Charles-- but there are no labor laws covering those born in space. Indeed, it is difficult even to pinpoint her true age; certificates are issued to infants only when their birth-ship ship reaches port. The title of citizen, and all the privileges that come with it, is granted only to members of political/professional lineages whose children are born on Terra.
Erik cannot help but calculate the probability that Marie will develop into a better friend and contemporary for Charles than the far-too-abstracted McCoy. Dr. McTaggart has on more than one occasion, revisited the necessity for Charles to have a 'real' friend his own age. Her solicitude, however, seems more aimed at endearing her to Dr. Xavier, and McCoy himself seems to approach the boy with a mixture of awe and inexplicable guilt. Though he has been unable to file any additional data under what he has labeled 'the Alexandria Incident', Erik remains watchful even the most subtle clues as to what may have befallen his young charge. He has yet to identify any draw-backs associated with the fact Charles will no longer leave the safety of the ship, or its Assistant's nominal custody.
The android does not omit the variable of Marie's gender, either. Developmentally, fourteen is a ripe age for natural stirrings of sexual interest and a peer-based shift in attitudes and values. In his data downloads, Erik finds this referred to as 'raging hormones' with an almost alarming regularity. It is a florid turn of phrase almost as confusing as 'pangs of love'. Marie is not an unacceptable female specimen; her red hair is a fine example of the MC1R gene, and her features possess enough regularity to meet general human standards of attractiveness. While she may not be able to handle the sheer volume and breadth of Charles' questions, there will be many she can answer, and she will certainly provide better behavior modeling for young Xavier.
Charles, however, either does not respond to probability calculations, or possesses knowledge of other factors to which Erik is as yet unaware. The boy continues to seek the Ship's Assistant out in the now-diminishing quiet hours, favoring Marie only with the gentle, distant affability he bestows on most ship-mates. Marie herself is quite absorbed with the Captain, both professionally and personally. This last, despite its clearly one-sided nature, only serves to further antagonize Ms. Frost. The Captain's apprentice treats Charles in a distracted, half-sisterly manner; Erik observes her ruffling the boy's hair as they wait in line for their "departure goodies", before she sways off to eat with Allerdyce and Lee.
The days of sending missions off with great fanfare are long gone but, though they would vehemently deny it if questioned, there are a few rituals spacers insist on observing to protect them out in 'The Black'. One of these is the tradition of keeping holidays in-sync with the Earth calendar. Another is the repast consumed on departure day. In the early centuries of seafaring, the Japanese christened all ships with the suffix '-maru', thought by linguists to mirror the word for 'circle'. In doing so, the sailors imbued each mention of their vessel with the desire for a safe 'round trip'. It is another instance of linkage between spoken language and the human ability to symbol that rather escapes Erik, but the meaning is potent enough to have survived to the present day.
The crew (and, more indulgently, the scientific staff) help themselves to a variety of round foods: oranges, pizza, coconuts, penny-drop candy, and donuts, to name a few. The last is considered particularly auspicious, as the center hole 'allows the good luck to flow through'. That the high-sugar and yeast content would appeal to carbohydrate-loving spacers may also be a factor. Erik displays and dispenses these popular items with equanimity, though no one is shy about making a grab for anything left unattended for even a few minutes. Weyland Industries provides the departure fare, without charging the company accounts of scientists of spacers, only adding to the enthusiasm with which it is received. Of course, the fruit is lab-created, but it is unlikely most have a basis for comparison. Even Emma-- having long since shed her shimmering civilian wear for a standard Weyland-grey uniform-- helps herself to a coconut, smiling faintly when Logan volunteers to drill a hole in for the straw. Ensuring everyone is aware of his generosity, Shaw himself allows the lab assistants a ten minute break in which to enjoy the 'disgustingly proletariat festivities'.
There is little to distinguish the beginning of this mission from any other. Pre-launch preparation has been a little longer than standard, but this is unsurprising given the complexity of their particular endeavor. Preparations for the mission itself will continue for the remaining two and a half weeks it takes to reach the Kuiper Belt, at which point all ion drives will be engaged and the crew itself safely entrusted to medical stasis. In the mean-time, the salt-spacers are certainly in their preferred environment, and if any of the scientists are excited by their first extra-solar journey, they are careful to disguise it with professionalism. The only truly enthused individual is Charles; he insists on using the term 'set sail', and shares with the android an orange he secreted away in his messenger bag. When Erik points out that Charles need not diminish his portion for the sake of one who does not truly require nourishment, the boy tells him in a conspiratorial whisper that 'it's the sharing that's important'.
Charles' eagerness and optimism are unique experience for Erik. While young Xavier makes no secret of his regret in leaving his sister on Earth, he seems thrilled with the prospect of true 'wilderness', that deep space provides. That he is an adolescent with a thirst for adventure is obvious; it is equally clear that this is yet another way in which he deviates from his peers. Most planet-born children are complacent, accustomed to safe and sanitary environments, and easily diverted by the endless stream of digital media at their disposal. The android has found his research on modern prepubescent development useful only in irregular intervals. He finds he must query texts from earlier eras to find reference to the importance of play, imagination, and exploration for this age group.
Despite his skill and erudition with complex programing and technology, Charles is something of an anachronism. Erik has previously noted the boy's antiquarianism in regards to paper books and older films. It is also evinced in some of his other forms of recreation, many of which align with the Assistant's own solitary pursuits. Young Xavier enjoys chess, Go, and mahjong-- owning a physical set for the first, and holographic licenses for the latter two. He draws, not on his digital tablet, but with paper and watercolor pencils. On Earth, traditional art has been almost completely abandoned, practitioners having left kinesthetic experience and craftsmanship for the error-proofing and superhuman clarity of computerized graphics. Great works from the past are still treasured and preserved, but the slightest layer of condescension has crept in, like that which colors perceptions of cave paintings and primitive pottery.
Perhaps Charles is not a particularly creative or emotive artist by classical standards, but Erik still finds the concept of such-self expression fascinating. Increasing creativity in problem-solving contexts has always been a stated goal for each new David model, but this certainly does not extend to expression of the few rudimentary emotions they may or may not possess. Any David model Six or higher can render reproductions with a virtuoso's skill, but a blank surface will remain forever unfilled if dependent solely on 'inspiration' alone. Charles' drawings fall into two distinct categories; large, colored geometric designs portrayed in perspectives of varying accuracy, and the type of scientific illustrations popular prior to the development of photography. At first, Erik is somewhat taken aback by the fervor with which the boy denounces having any future ambitions in regards to this hobby. He is given to understand that children should generally be encouraged to express themselves and be allowed to indulge in less-than-realistic goals. Charles is young, but he shows a dedication to accuracy which, with practice, can only develop into true skill. Moreover, Xavier has made repeated references to his sister's hobby of 'fashion design'. If she is permitted to indulge her passion while still pursuing practical goals at Stanford, logic would dictate that Charles is entitled to the same allowances.
Regardless of his stated attitude, the primary purpose of Xavier's drawing seems to be a type of meditation or self-soothing. Charles, despite keeping hours that are more-or-less out of sync with the rest of the staff, has managed to set a routine for himself. In the absence of parental structure (Dr. Xavier seems content as long as he receives no complaints about his son) and formal schooling, Charles has set goals for himself. While possibly detrimental if allowed to go unchecked, the android is still impressed with the self-imposed intellectual rigor. Meteorological inaccuracy aside, the youngest Nephthys crew member is enjoying the 'last days of summer vacation', and the short time aboard has already allowed the human to form habits. Charles writes daily emails to his sister, works studiously on several geometry proofs and programming projects, and voluntarily rations his time with video games to one hour a 'day'. During the 'lunch' meal (by far the most crowded, as it also serves as breakfast for second shift workers), young Xavier eschews the mess hall in favor of searching out life models in the botany lab.
Erik himself is passing through E Deck on yet another of Dr. McTaggart's off-handed assignments, when he happens to overhear one of the boy's rare interactions with a non-familial adult.
In this light, Erik must once again revise the factors and parameters under which he theorized Charles' personality to have formed. The Ship's Assistant is several meters away down a perpendicular corridor when his audio sensors detect a rather undignified squeak, in the voice-print he recognizes as belonging to his young companion. This is followed by the chuckle of an adult male, and a larger sample of diction identifiable as Sebastian Shaw. Erik has been exposed to this particular tone of voice a number of times in the past few days overhearing it when Charles is forced to interact with certain members of the crew. He has come to recognize it as a tone common to many who approach children like some foreign-- and possibly mentally deficient-- species. Shaw inquires about Charles' 'toys' as he presumably escorts the boy out into the hall. Upon hearing Charles' uncharacteristically quiet and reluctant response ("Sorry, sir. They're my drawing supplies."), the scientist laughs with excessive joviality, remarking that Brian certainly does allow his son to indulge in some rather 'obsolete interests and eccentric habits'.
Scuttling away with a rather repetitive and condescending reprimand from Shaw to 'stay out from underfoot', Charles almost collides with Erik as he makes a sharp round of the corner. For once, the human's preference for bare feet pays off-- at that speed, he likely would have skidded and fallen if he'd been wearing standard Weyland-issue slippers. At the Steward's glance of inquiry, the boy smiles ruefully, face aimed down and away as he waves off any verbal questioning. The android's EROS makes note of Charles' high color and trembling lip, as well as the way he's hugging his hastily-packed messenger bag to his chest. Erik's primary impulse, despite previous instructions, is to stay and ascertain Charles' well-being and the situation itself. His protocols, however, sharply remind him of Dr. McTaggart's requests, and his productivity monitors simply will not allow for much deviation. Suddenly, limitations of these efficiency protocols seem starkly highlighted, and the android realizes he has simply never allowed a plan or preference to form while his human charges are awake.
It is not a conflict, in the sense of one command actually overriding another. Instead, Erik makes a contradictory action that still falls within the programming parameters. Gathering the earbuds that dangle precariously from the boy's bag, he employs the same gentle touch on the shoulder which Charles previously demonstrated towards him. Touch for the sake of touch. He is gratified to see Charles' sheepish smile gain a little enthusiasm; they nod and part, speaking no word that Shaw (more than likely lingering somewhere) could overhear.
After that, Charles' drawing supplies make their appearance only during ship's night, and tend to vanish completely if Erik asks even the most innocuous of questions. He is given to understand, mostly by inference and voice-stress analysis, that Charles has been derided for his interests before, particularly the obscure ones. The android cannot help but wonder at the identity of these critics for, as he postulated, young Xavier has readily admitted that he did not spend much time in any communal education environment. There can be little doubt that the primary factor is his prodigious intelligence. However, the boy's compulsive tugging on his ear-tag and refusal to initiate eye-contact during these discussions indicate that his 'handicap' and the attitudes of others may also have limited his matriculation in formal school. Instead, Brian Xavier apparently invested in highly qualified tutors-- usually retired teachers or grad-students on sabbatical-- engaged with the understanding that they would travel alongside the boy and his mother.
Though the subterfuge is unnecessary in Erik's presence, the Ship's Assistant cannot help but be both impressed with and understanding of the swiftness with which Charles demurs and obfuscates to avoid conflict. He is serenely polite to any adults making commentary, and sometimes makes self-deprecating jokes that he might-- as Logan is fond of saying-- 'beat them to the punch'. Erik himself has learned, through unpleasant and behavior-modifying experience, never to divulge his own interests to the humans he serves. His absorption in and with classic cinema, for example, or his curiosity regarding industrial-era technology. Steam engines, in particular, are fascinating systems of finely tuned moving parts. Perhaps there will come a time when he and Charles might choose a Western film to indulge in, should Erik find it within himself to make the suggestion. The concept of a 'train heist' is novel to the Assistant, and will doubtless appeal to the boy's sense of adventure.
Trust, Erik's EROS reminds him, is an important factor in 'loyalty'-- for both parties. It is the defining attribute of those within the bond towards each other, just as solidarity defines the bond from without. Though the android himself gently removed Charles' OrganoPlast bandage himself when the time came, an explanation for the faint remaining burn mark is just one of the many topics about which the boy is markedly reticent.
Yet, with each interaction, a strange hypothesis begins developing within his EROS: that, of all onboard the Nephthys, is actually Erik that knows Charles best.
[ * * * * * * * * * ]
Miss Darkholme's observations of her brother were without error: Charles is a singular being.
The increased population of the ship has, in a reversal of socialization Erik is no longer surprised at-- steadily decreases Charles' public presence. The boy in question develops the most uncanny an ability for traversing the ship unseen. Part of this is simply his programming skill, which allows him to inject queries for personnel location and extrapolate traffic patterns from there. The few traces of 'hacking' he leaves are subtle, and indicate an elegance in structure that allows Erik avoid qualifying anything the Nephthys mainframe does sense as a malicious intrusion. Young Xavier makes no changes, and never indulges in anything that could remotely be considered a prank. If the android did not know what to look for, it is very likely even he would write the few remaining traces off as a data ghosts. It is sensible enough that the boy should want to move about-- he can hardly stay in his quarters all day. Some of his alternative choices, however, are decidedly… irregular. This introduces the android to an aspect of Xavier which Raven warned him of.
Programming restraint or no, Charles does have a mischievous streak.
As the ship passes through Jupiter's orbit, he begins finding Charles in the most unexpected places: in cupboards, under desks, and on high out-of-the-way catwalks in the vast storage hold. Once, he comes across the boy perched in a nest of blankets in the great laundry galley, atop one of the industrial dryers. Taking advantage of his small build, Charles has also proven himself an impressive climber. He seems to favor the small but stable platform behind the basketball hoop in the gymnasium, remarking that it is rather like a 'crow's nest'. He never interferes with any equipment, enters a specifically restricted area or impedes anyone else's assigned tasks, but Erik still questions the illogical behavior.
"The general consensus seems to be that I should stay out from underfoot," young Xavier informs him sagely. "Mum used to say the same thing. The easiest way to avoid other people's feet is to get off the floor."
The turn of phrase is deliberately literalist, accompanied by a somewhat forcibly sunny smile and a noticeable lack of negative vocal imprints. While far more whimsical than taunting, Erik still finds his 'Puck' comparison very adept, and possessed of more depth than he initially realized. For Charles has a quality about him which can only be described as faey in the most complimentary sense. Like Waterhouse's portrayals of Hylas or Tristram, he seems to occupy a space in tandem and yet tangental to the social structure around him. There simply isn't a large enough data set to determine whether or not this other 'world' is one of choice, relegation, or a mixture thereof. Once again, the Ship's Assistant cannot help but speculate at the choice of Brian Xavier-- and the Weyland Supervisory Board-- to bring his son on such a mission. He can find no true censure for it, though, as it is the sole impetus by which he and Charles have met.
In due course, Weyland Industries uploads a ship-board curriculum for their young charge, devised in accordance with IntraSol Education Standards. Despite complaints about having his own research curtailed, Charles remains a dedicated and self-policing student. Erik very much doubts, however, that the modules on geology and American literature were intended to be completed whilst tucked away under stairwells. The boy's shoes are often the only sign of him, but Erik quickly learns their placement is often a strategic faint to mislead any adult that might search him out. Such instances are worryingly infrequent.
Brian Xavier, having received the requested spectrograph lenses before departure, becomes wholly engrossed in the search for elemental composites and organic remains in the artifacts thus far declassified. Mutual enthusiasm overcoming temperamental incompatibilities, he becomes far more receptive to collaboration with Shaw. He takes every meal with his colleagues, whether or not Charles makes an appearance. Erik often sees the elder Xavier gesticulating with utensils as he speculates about reverse bio-engineering with Shaw, or argues his beloved panspermia with Azazel. The latter is a confirmed skeptic and seems to enjoy a good argument. It's becoming a joke that, as excavations and munitions expert, he loves a good explosion. If the Ship's Assistant sees the remaining members of the Xavier family take more than one meal together in a 72 hour period, it is indeed worth remark. Erik is only certain the boy is properly nourished via the log of meal-card punches.
Charles has taken to eating at increasingly irregular intervals and, since his boarding, has observed a sleep-schedule fathomable only to him. Inquiries as to the quality of his repose must be very carefully framed, for Erik has not forgotten how Charles chaffed at the notion of a 'babysitter'. Yet, if someone were to inquire about the boy's well-being, Erik's protocols would, as they discussed, force him to disclose his concerns.
He is 85% certain, based on behavioral prediction models, that the father will not ask.
Based on Charles' reaction (or lack thereof) to this paternal absence, Erik can extrapolate that this is not new behavior. He is given to understand that, while Brian Xavier favored longer assignments to various research facilities, the late Sharon Xavier traveled extensively on Earth, often taking her son with her. She seems to have greatly favored northern climes-- Charles proudly shows him holo-photos of the aurora borealis, the ice hotel at Jukkasjarvi, and the geothermal hot springs of Grindavik in Iceland.
That Mrs. Xavier's death is very recent is a matter of public record, and Erik overheads Dr. McTaggart remark that Brian is withdrawing out of a widower's grief. She treats him with a solicitude many would find chafing, but her intended recipient apparently fails to register it at all. Gabriella and Janos, on the other hand, seem very much aware of the subtext, and have taken to rolling their eyes at one another when her back is turned. Younger deck hands have taken to calling to calling Brian Xavier the 'Wacky Professor' and making retro-culture references to Vulcan mating habits.
Then some wit-- Erik suspects it may have been Toynbee-- suggests that the scientist may have been 'kinky enough' to have chosen a telepathic wife as an experiment.
Despite the numerous advances in preventative medicine and social psychology, the human disorder known as shipboard gossip has yet to be expunged. While this has been a staple of every mission in Erik's existence, it does not take long to deduce (especially given how quickly the above rumors have spread) that this malady will be a particular problem on the Sirius mission.
According to his EROS, informal-- and sometimes covert-- exchange of information and speculation can function as a pressure-valve for the human crew. Erik's protocols classify gossip as a mild form of entertainment that, like all human indulgences, should be kept in moderation. The android's anecdotal experience has shown it is often far more confusing and destructive than permissive terms like 'scuttlebutt' would lead one to believe. Again, it features a dissonance so integral to humans-- what they are willing to say to an individual, versus how they speak in that person's absence. The Ship's Assistant is always privy to the entire gamut of rumors for any particular mission, simply by virtue of the fact humans take no more care to censor themselves in front of him than they do in the presence of furniture. Despite their cruel edge, the early rumors for this voyage have been largely harmless. The worst result would be embarrassment on the part of Dr. McTaggart should her regard be publicly acknowledged, but even then it is unlikely such would penetrate the awareness of her fellow scientist. Baseless speculation surrounding the death of Dr. Xavier's wife is tasteless and nonconstructive, but Erik is 87% certain Charles has not been exposed to them, and has employed subtle social and scheduling measures to ensure the boy remains insulated.
Of far greater concern is the unrest centering around Dr. Shaw. His political opinions-- or rather, his continued insistence on pontificating about said-- have quickly became chief amongst verbal personnel complaints. There are some who agree with the bare platform of Shaw's radical views, but his posturing is almost universally condemned. There are a few sycophantic enough to endure his lengthy speeches, and-- in a development that in no way surprises any of Erik's probability models-- Toynbee, Essex, and Creed are among them. A vigorous proponent of regulating and genetically 'phasing out' telepaths, Shaw is also given to frequent tirades about the proper subjugation of the colonies, the policed internet, and economic controls.
The fact that some of these sentiments are in line with the Office of Civilian Loyalty makes argument or disruption a doubly precarious action. Those humans born on colonies (like Allerdyce, Jubilee, Angel and Alex) take special care to avoid him. Sebastian Shaw seems to portray himself as some sort of inspired political pundit, forced into the obscurity of the scientific community as retaliation for his uncompromising beliefs. Many feel stifled and afraid to express their own opinions, but they clearly ascribe enough credence to his supposed business connections that they endure his lecturing. The muffled grumbling that ensues whenever Shaw leaves a room shows it clearly hasn't taken long for the resentment to build up.
While he cannot definitively trace it back to the comments about Sharon Xavier, Erik is never the less convinced that these were the impetus for another major source of contention. This one spreads more surreptitiously, but is all the more dangerous for being both subtle and divisive. The 'rumor' itself is no secret, and presents the Ship's Assistant once more with the confounding human ability to 'discover' facts which are already known. The data is easy enough to confirm from the mission dossier, but it achieves the vague hysteria of some rumored viral outbreak.
The information is simply this: The Nephthys, while suffering the somewhat questionable but proven leadership of one pseudo-human, is actually host to two such individuals. Ms. Frost is a known quantity-- lambda-level, Null for decades, and Weyland approved.
'But Charles…' repeated again and again in ominous whispers, 'Charles is an Omega Class telepath'.
[+] A great many of the ideas for Erik's organic processor/hard-drive come from Michiko Kaku's very excellent Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century (1997). A little out-of-date, but still very accessible and interesting. Any errors/misconceptions/out-right impossibilities are the fault of the humble fic-writer.
[+] For visual reference: Tristram and Isolde (1916) and Hylas With A Nymph (1893) by John Waterhouse. His female figures are obviously exquisite, but I think his males are also quite lovely. Yes, I'm a nerd. You already know this. ;-)
As always, any comments or kudos you choose to leave would make me very indebted and grateful.