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the ground is not so stable here

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Martin-7 doesn’t remember what being born was like, even if he did only just finish the process.

He has the feeling it had something to do with warmth, though that might just be the freezing cold temperatures of the vacuum tube he’s currently sealed inside getting to him.


He hopes whoever’s in charge won’t forget about him for too long.


Maybe, this is still part of being born, he thinks, and we’re not quite there yet, so chin up.


Still. He doesn’t think he likes cold much.


When a small panel at the base of the tube slides back to allow through a buzzing metallic prong, then, he thinks nothing of reaching for it. After all, vibration = heat, right? At least, that’s what the basic science package he’s been pre-installed with is telling him, and that’s got to mean something. He opens and closes his hand a couple of times, to get used to the feeling of it, before he braces himself against the back of the tube, bends his knees, and slides down until he can make contact with the prong, which, he notes as it grows closer in his vision, now carries a single blue spark jumping back and forth between each of the prongs.


Stellar Firma really ought to have installed the advanced science package, he thinks, later, after the pain’s worn off and he’s once again able to breathe.


In the moment however, the agony that instantly flares up through his arm is excruciating, and all thoughts of warmth are shoved aside as the electricity runs up his arm and wraps around his heart, where it yanks . He’s dimly aware that he’s screaming, loudly, but ninety-four point five-six-eight percent of his brain is preoccupied trying to localize the source of whatever the hell is happening to him . Of the remaining five point four-three-two percent, around a quarter of his attention is focused on trying to make out the words on the loudspeaker; he can’t manage more than the occasional phrase:







“-VERY BUSY-” (this from a new voice, a vaguely nice voice, Martin would conclude, if he had the capacity-)






-and running alongside it all, the ever-present stream of the packaging manager (and he’s realized that’s what it is, as the pleasantly neutral voice begins to list off, rapid-fire-)


















-and Martin isn’t exactly sure what’s happening but all at once the lights and sounds and flashes exploding behind his eyes drain away as if they’d never existed at all. The vacuum tube opens and unceremoniously deposits him out onto the floor.


He stays curled on the ground, shivering.



He wakes to the sound of depressurizing doors and an impatient drumming, the latter of which, he realizes as he picks himself up off of the floor into a seated position with a groan, is coming from the long, slim fingers tapping against the edge of one of the large screens Martin is sure weren’t there last night. He tracks the motion up an arm, across a slightly tensed shoulder, and up to a very irritated face.


This, finally, is enough to shake Martin out of his still half-dazed state and he snaps to attention, spine straightening.

“You’re the new one, then.”


It takes Martin a second to realize the face is talking to him .


“Oh- uh, yes? I think so?”


“What does that make you, then, Martin-6? 7?”


“Seven,” Martin affirms, a new emotion prickling at his edges at the sound of his- predecessor’s name. He wants to ask-- if this person knew Martin-6, then they might be able to explain it--  but fights the impulse-- from their expression, he’s not sure whatever this person calls themselves would appreciate a barrage of questions about what he’s feeling.


Said person doesn’t react beyond a short noise indicating they’ve heard him, at least, and the room is uncomfortably quiet for a few moments. Finally, Martin can’t stand the silence any longer:


“And, um, you are…?”


“Jonathan Sims,” comes the answer, voice still clearly annoyed, and Martin can’t help but note two things somewhere in the back of his mind: One, that Jonathan acts as if whatever issue is irking him seems to be somehow Martin’s fault-- entirely unlikely as it is, Martin knows, considering as he’s been alive all of a few hours-- and two, that Jonathan’s voice is very nice when it curls and settles against the base of his neck.


“Well, hello, Jonathan--” Jonathan winces, and it only adds to the slowly growing trepidation making a home for itself in Martin’s gut-- “As I’ve said, I’m Martin-7, and I’ve been sent to help Architect- well, uh, you, I guess, with-- planet reconstruction? At least-- that’s what I think the video said? I couldn’t really tell; I was a bit busy getting, well, constructed, too-- I mean, you could call it that, couldn’t you?--”




“All that package installation-- that’s similar, right, and--”


Martin .”


Martin stops. Blinks. Discovers that he can, indeed, blush, as the heat and embarrassment pool in his cheeks. He manages to keep his hand from running sheepishly through his hair and looks up just in time to see Jonathan turning away.


“It’s not planet reconstruction ,” he says, hands flurrying between some papers he’s brought out of nowhere, “Nor is it design, or build, or any of the other departments you may have heard of, though I suppose what you’ve come up with is closer than the rest.”


His fingers come to rest on a page that seems to have caught his interest, and he draws it out from the pile, free hand reaching to hit a few buttons on the console beside him.


“I look over old cases-- planets that have been turned over, sold, destroyed by war or pestilence, or just, more often-- abandoned. Usually they’re properties already owned by Stellar Firma, either acquisitions or experiments gone wrong. Whatever the case, we- I look over the various statements, judge what went wrong, brainstorm a few suggestions, put together a proposal, and submit it to goodness knows who.”


“Alright, okay, so… where do I come in?”


Jonathan laughs, but it’s clipped, and Martin can’t really find anything humorous about the situation anyways.


“As my assistant, I expect that you’ll be helping me with all of it.”


All of it?”


“You’re not some glorified secretary, if that’s what you’re asking. You’ll have to keep up better than that.”


The words are delivered without bite, though, and he begins shuffling through the stack of papers again. His right arm gropes absently for something that apparently isn’t there, as he turns and begins to ask “Say, Martin, do you know where I’ve put my--”


He cuts off, eyes having landed properly on Martin, and Martin’s surprised to see the easy softness nestled within them for the fraction of a second before he fully registers Martin’s presence. Jonathan looks away, and when his gaze flickers back, the overwhelming mixture of contempt and-- something else, an emotion Martin can’t yet identify-- that washes over him makes him wonder if he’d entirely imagined what he’d seen only moments earlier.


It’s Martin who looks away this time.


He stands uncomfortably in silence for a while, unsure of what to do with any of himself, before Jonathan seems to take pity on him and gives him something to do.


“Turn those screens on, will you?


Martin hurries to the task, glad for an excuse to step even a few feet away from Jonathan.

When he gets to the console on the wall, however, there are more buttons and switches and blinking lights than he’d have thought necessary for what seem for all purposes like standard screens-- not that he knows what ‘standard’ means exactly.


“Er- Jonathan?” he asks, still a little wary of what his new boss’s reaction might be.


To his credit, Jonathan’s head does snap his way immediately, though if Martin had turned he would have seen a incomprehensible expression on his face.


“Jon,” he says, finally.




“Jon. Not Jonathan.”


He leans back into his chair as if a great weight has been taken off of his chest, turns back to his work like Martin had never called him in the first place.


“Well, Jon-- how am I supposed to turn on the screens?”


“Figure it out.”


Fine , thinks Martin. He can do this without Jon’s unhelpful apathy staring him down. He spends a bit of time reading the handwritten labels pasted by each unit in the console, all incomprehensible things like “Grey,” and “Steep,” and-- “Edict?” None of it seems helpful, but after a bit of experimental trial and error (and with some inadvertent machine jostling of Jon in the process,) he thinks he’s got the lay of the land enough to be comfortable setting the room up in the days to come.


He gives the console a last once-over to keep himself occupied, and notices a small button in the corner, the same black as the console, though its surface is faded and worn. Next to it is another label, this one with just a smiley face drawn on. He’s not sure what that’s supposed to mean.


Chancing another look up at Jon, who seems absorbed in his work, Martin presses the button.




No, ” says Jon, a surprising ferocity in his tone as his head snaps up towards Martin, and he crosses the room to jab at the button that shuts the thing off. Martin blinks up at him, confused-- isn’t this how it’s supposed to work?-- and Jon sighs, rubs his temples with one hand before looking back up at him. Martin notes, abstractly, the streaks of grey running through his hair, prematurely aging him ten, fifteen years. He wonders if it’s natural, or if it’s the sort of thing Jon thinks is a trend. He doesn’t know enough about the man to be surprised either way.


“I’ve found,” Jon begins, and pauses as if choosing his words carefully, “it’s...easier, to work without the immersion.” His tone changes, becomes brisk and cool once again. “Increases productivity, for one, and considering your situation, you hardly ought to be the one advocating against that.”


“Sorry-- my situation?”


Jon stares at him blankly.


“The satisfaction clause.”


“I’m sorry, I don’t--”

“Ah. Yes. I always forget how little information you all start with. Yes, Martin, if our clients aren’t satisfied with our little proposals at the end of any particular work cycle, you will be...replaced. Recycled.”


What? But- But I--”


Jon ignores him, shrugs off all his further questions, and eventually, Martin retreats back into his chair, unable to take his eyes off of Jon, hands shaking slightly, though whether out of fear or anger he’s not quite sure yet.


They pass the rest of the shift in silence, aside from the occasional ‘can you pass this,’ and ‘give that here,’ and vague yes es and no s from Jon.


It’s almost a relief when he leaves.