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Transformative Pain

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In the light of the navigational display, which splits the air with razor-sharp beams of emerald and painful white, the command room doesn't look quite as tomblike. But the gleaming black ribs of the walls arching above their heads look weirdly organic, almost as if in the next moment they will flex with the indrawn breath of a vast and ancient beast stirring from hibernation.

The broad disc of the navigational table dominates the room and the hypersleep beds glow a warm golden light. Three meters above the center hangs a burnished orb, flecked and threaded through with blue. David had pronounced the name of the planet for her. It was something harsh and guttural and forbidding.

His body lays on the edge of the navigational table. Its limbs still twitch sporadically, which Elizabeth chooses to take as a good sign. Carefully, almost tenderly, she had placed his disconnected head, dripping milky white fluid, next to the body. He had smiled up at her with his gentle blue eyes. It unnerved her how human he continued to be, even lying there in pieces like that.

The toolkit was embedded in the inner plane of his left thigh. It had been clumsy enough unzipping his long, pale body out of its suit, and when his limbs twitched in her hands she jumped. She got to the toolkit, passing her thumb over what looked like nothing more than a little brown birthmark so the kit slipped through the skin and into her hands.

"I don't know how to do this," she says now, having inventoried the kit's tiny utensils and returned her attention to his disembodied head. "I'm no cyberneticist. I only studied archaeological robots in school...."

"I will guide you," he says. "It is delicate work, but I have faith in your abilities. Furthermore, it's not as complicated as it looks. My systems are equipped with nanobots programmed to do maintenance procedures, and they will do the bulk of the finer repairs, once the brain stem is reconnected.”

He says something in the language of the Engineers and the lights lining the nav display flare bright.

"There is a fusion splicer in the kit -- there, with the claw-clamp at the tip. You will need to align each fiber manually and secure it in the clamp. Depress the round button to charge it; depress the square button to generate a small electric arc to melt and weld the fibers together. There is a magnifying lens in the kit. You will need it to read the identification code on each fiber and pair it with its mate."

There must be thousands of fibers in the brainstem alone, Elizabeth observes, and she sighs.
"Don't lose heart," he smiles. "The most important fibers are color-coded for your convenience. These are the ones you need concern yourself with. Once they have been spliced, the nanobots will take care of the others."

"That's handy."

"Indeed." His smile is cool and dreamy. "There should be a negligible degree of insertion loss if you precisely align the fibers before initiating the weld."

"Okay."

"Please be precise."

"Okay." She laughs shakily, palms his cheek, pats his face. "Can we get any more light?"

At his command the lights flicker brighter and she begins to work, starting with the red fibers at the back of the stem.

Some time passes, she knows not how much. The work requires too much of her attention and dexterity to become tedious, and once the full-tide fear of making a mistake begins to ebb, she finds herself -- well, not enjoying the work, but appreciating the complexity of the structure. One by one she tugs fiber optic strands apart. The opaque hydraulic fluid causes them to cling together, and she uses a scrap of fabric to wipe them clean before securing opposite ends with the clamp. It's almost foolproof, she thinks.

She begins to notice slight tics in his facial muscles -- for want of a better term -- as she activates the fusion welder, sending a jolt of electricity through fibers, just enough to melt them together. She takes it at first as the random firing of electrical impulses resulting from successful connections, but more and more she begins to read his expression as one of pain.

"Does it... hurt?" she asks finally, pausing in her work to look him in the eye.

"That depends on what you mean," says David. He is not smiling. "I do not feel pain the way you do."

"But you feel something."

"Every one of my systems is screaming a red alert down my central nervous system," he says. "It is incessant, and….” His hesitation doesn’t sound calculated at all. “… Shrill.”

"Sounds like human pain to me."

"The basic concept is the same, but – no. Human pain is transformative. It elevates you, focuses all your energy into a will to survive so strong you can do anything to make the pain stop. I have read of individuals who, upon finding a limb trapped by a rockslide or a fallen tree, amputate the limb in order to escape."

His eyes burn into hers, and then they flick downward toward her sliced-open belly, which aches beneath her suit.

"That is what pain is to you," he says. “Even now you are fueled by it. I have felt your fingers tremble, Miss Shaw, and I see the perspiration at your temples."

"A gentleman doesn't mention a lady's perspiration, David."

He averts his eyes momentarily. "I apologize." He speaks with the sincerity and shame of a small child. "Do you not feel transformed by your pain?"

The question, and all the memories it drags to the surface of her abraded mind, hurts almost worse than the gash in her stomach. She can't answer.

"For me," he says, "pain is merely informative. It alerts me to a flaw in my systems, a breach in the hull, so to speak." His nostrils flare slightly -- autonomic response, or amusement?

"I guess the hull is pretty breached."

"Nothing that can't be fixed, Miss Shaw."

She resumes her work in silence. Occasionally he gives her directions, anticipating her questions so expertly that she needn't speak at all. She's been working for what feels like hours when he gives his fingers an experimental waggle.

"Very good, Miss Shaw," he says. "You should rest."

"I'm fine."

"You have lost one point twenty-one liters of blood, Miss Shaw. Your pulse is elevated at eighty-nine beats per minute; your temperature has dropped to thirty-four point two degrees Celsius. You require rest and nourishment."

She rears up and away from him suddenly, stretching, feeling her fingers trembling. She presses the back of her hand to her forehead and yes, she feels cool and clammy, though how much of that is the result of the unfamiliar life support she can't be sure. The split in her belly screams agony at the slightest provocation.

"David," she says, "I need to get you repaired as soon as possible. I only have rations enough for two weeks. After that I have to go into hypsersleep. It’d be even better if I went in with a week’s rations to spare."

He smiles up at her. "I promise you it will take nowhere near two weeks to repair me."

Her eyebrow quirkes upward. "Are androids compelled to keep promises?"

He frowns, but before he can speak she continues.

"I saw the look on your face," she says. "I saw the look on your face, David, when I said we didn't know how Charlie got -- got infected. You looked me in the eye and I saw." She holds his half-connected head between her palms, turns it so he has no choice but to look her in the eyes. Her face is very white.

"David. Tell me. Tell me what you found out."

His luminous blue eyes blink up at her, and his face is rigid as a mask. "Miss Shaw, I...."

There was something recalcitrant in his tone and she gripped him tighter. "You know. I know you do. I -- I know you brought back one of those canisters, that you were performing your own -- experiments. Tell me what you discovered."

He sighs shudderingly and his mouth, where it had been worried and tight, relaxed, the lines around it softening.

"I discovered very little, Miss Shaw," he says. His voice is cool, expressionless, yet calculatedly soothing. "I have not determined as yet whether I can rule out airborne transmission, but the likelihood of the pathogen being airborne is low. It seems safer to say that infection can occur upon ingestion, even perhaps touch."

"Ingestion?"

David was silent.

"But he was suited up the whole time," says Elizabeth, bewildered. "He didn't go unmasked, at least not when the rest of us didn't follow. How could he have -- David, you're not making any sense."

"Shhh." His whisper is audibly distorted, an electronic buzz creeping in at the edges. "Miss Shaw, you must calm yourself. I know that Charlie meant quite a great deal to you. His sacrifice was in the interest of mankind. It was logical, but the logical choice is sometimes terribly difficult for you people. It was a great act of altruism. Surely that counts for something."

Elizabeth chokes back a sob.

He falls silent. There are things he could tell her, but they would bring her no comfort, and therefore he will not tell her. He will placate her and remind her of Charlie's self-sacrifice, let her take it for heroism, and let her come to terms with his death in her own time.

What does it matter, he thinks, that he killed Charlie?

(For David, though he cannot feel the corrosive tooth of guilt, knows that had Charlie not flung himself into the flames, the alien substance which he had introduced to Charlie’s system would have overwhelmed him.)

It’s not a matter of his inability to feel guilt gnawing away at his soul – of course, he has no soul; Weyland made that perfectly clear. Rather it's simple math. He will not take all the responsibility for Charlie's death, of course; in fact, his participation in that event deserves no more than a third of the blame. 1: Charlie said he would go to any lengths to find answers. 2: Charlie flung himself into the fire. At that point, David's contribution to the event was almost incidental.

However.

(Elizabeth is weeping openly now, though silently; she has curled up in the navigational chair, and this reminds him – brings images surging to the surface of his mind – of the child he saw in her dreams.)

He knows that she will not consider his participation "incidental."

And he readily admits: her pregnancy was... regrettable.

When the image of her womb had appeared on the screen, its ghostly occupant rippling into view like an Elder God rising from the deep, David had felt -- something. Surprise? That was something he could experience, at a rudimentary level. Even an android as superior as himself could encounter the unexpected.

But horror?

Practically speaking, it couldn’t have been. David’s faculties were incapable of being affected in such a way; he did not feel his blood run cold or his flesh creep, or endure a surge of adrenaline to overwhelm his logical processes. But he understood what it was not to desire a certain outcome.

He had known, of course, what Weyland would have chosen to do. The alien would have been his prior concern. He would have allowed no opportunity for human error. To Weyland, Elizabeth was expendable. Less than expendable: the use of her body was to be encouraged. Human resources. David had no doubt about that. If the alien were the only concern, David could have opened her up then and there, ripped the beast from her body, and put it in stasis on its own. Elizabeth would have been simply another casualty, like Charlie, like Millburn, like Fifield.

He should have anaesthetized her immediately to prevent her from doing exactly what she did. The fetus was the priority. He knew his duty was to Weyland and furthermore: he knew Elizabeth. He had, after all, watched her dreams for two years. He knew how deep ran her desire for motherhood. He understood that she would be shocked and confused when she learned she was pregnant. He knew that shock would be transmuted – however briefly – into pure, golden joy.

He knew, too, how soon that joy would crumble into horror at the realization that the life she carried was a perversion, the fruit that turns to bitter ashes in the mouth.

He knew the lengths to which fear motivated her. He could have anticipated her desperation.
But he had not taken the logical course of action, the course that would have best served his master's purpose. Weyland wanted the alien in one piece at all costs. David, however, saw the value in innocent life. And Elizabeth is innocent.

She sniffs deeply, wipes her eyes on the stiff sleeve of her suit.

"I'm fine," she says, dabbing at her eyes, refusing to look at him. "I... let's get back to work." She winces as she stands, her breath catches in her throat, but she clenches her teeth together and lays her hands on him once more.

The truth?

He spasms as the jolts of electricity shot through him, sharp as a rubber band snapping the skin. Her hands are steady and assured. Her heart rate is still elevated, but she does not tremble.

The truth? He is made of metals and plastics that could endure temperatures in excess of fifteen hundred degrees Celsius; his cadmium alloy endoskeleton can withstand over a thousand pounds of compression force; the silken polymer shell of his skin is impervious to acid and resistant to punctures, bruises, and all kinds of lacerations -- but she is the indestructible one. She, in her frail mortal body, is in one piece while he lies split in two on the table, and he felt a thread of pride wisp through him at the thought of having kindled life within her.

For wasn't it his contribution that quickened the beast within her? Breathed life into the crumpled husk of her womb?

“David?”

“Yes, Elizabeth?”

“You’re… you’re crying.”

Her thumb ghosts across his cheek, catching the tear as it slips down.