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East of Earth (That Was) and West of the Universe (The Cyborg & the Engineer Schematic)

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“Happy birth day, Mêlée,” her father said in his grumbly-low voice like a bear.  His arms wrapped her up, pulling her back against his broad chest in a hug as if she were still eight, not eighteen.  “Doesn’t look like much, but maybe you can make something of it.” 

“Oh, Papa,” she squealed (just a little), equal parts exasperation at the nickname and delight at the gift.  She bounced impatiently in his embrace, all eyes and eager to touch.  He ruffled her hair as she wriggled free and trotted across the dusty barn floor for a close-up look. 

***

It was about a century old, near as she could tell, the metal corroded under layers of dirt and fatigued at the joints and completely, utterly unfamiliar.  She spent a few moments chewing her lower lip before deciding to tackle the protective rectangular plate covering the mechanics of the upper left arm.  She reached for the tray by her side, where tools of all shapes, sizes, and function were laid out as neatly as any surgeon’s scalpels, clamps, and retractors. The panel yielded to the simple application of leverage, and she took her first peek inside. 

The tangles of wire and solid-state transmitters at the shoulder were difficult to decipher, but her fingers, small and nimble, were able to trace the most likely leads up to a knot at the base of its skullplate.  She frowned, and turned aside for solvent and cloth. 

What was revealed only compounded the mystery – some kind of titanium alloy?  Far too precious and expensive to be found in such quantities here, at the edge of the colonial frontier... She returned to the puzzle, tracking each wire closely and noting their configuration before brushing her (dusty) hands on her (equally dusty) pants and sketching a quick diagram on a scrap of crumpled paper.

She replaced the panel on the upper arm and then opened up the forearm.  More of the same:  a snarled profusion of wires leading between and among components, most with maker’s marks still visible (a blue sun?) but not legible.  She couldn’t read them; she’d never seen the symbols – language? – before. 

A sudden shadow drew her attention, as the stall window was blocked by the inquisitive head of her displaced horse.  Nostrils flared, the sturdy chestnut gelding sniffed cautiously at the metal intruder; a long, displeased snort/sneeze expressed his opinion. 

“Hush, you,” she said, putting a hand out to rub his white blaze affectionately.  “It won’t eat your hay.  And it won’t harm you none to sleep in the corral.” 

The weather was warm enough that Red would be fine outside for however long it took to repair the 'droid-bot.  Brow furrowed in thought, she slowly put back everything she’d removed, covered it all with a blanket, and went to wash up for supper. 

***

She didn’t know what made her pause in her tinkering. Some instinct, maybe, stilled her hands and made her look about.  She felt the fine hairs rise at the back of her neck; it felt like she was being watched. Shivering, she shrugged off her unease and resolutely returned to the interrupted task.   

She’d been devoting every minute she could spare to restoring the 'droid-bot to functional condition, giving technically vague progress reports when her father asked but keeping the oddity of the thing to herself.  It was exciting – so many perplexing unknowns she had at her fingertips! - and incredibly frustrating that she hadn’t yet been able to find a way into the skull or power cavity.  But she had plenty of time and (usually) a great deal of patience.  She was confident she’d crack it, and had decided to play things cool until then.   

Then she looked down, found herself transfixed by the mismatched gaze of the 'droid-bot’s open eyes, and choked on her own caught breath.

***

It had one blue eye.  One eerily Human-like blue eye, staring straight at her alongside the cold white glow of a typical 'droid-bot optical receptor.  It blinked, which was both intriguing and disconcerting because only the blue eye blinked.  It had long brown eyelashes, thicker and fuller than her own, which she’d never paid much attention to before but which now seemed very unfair. 

For what seemed like forever, they just blinked at each other.  Then she heard a sound, like the lazy rustle of wind through the brush, and realized it was trying to speak. 

“…hhhh…”

“Hh...hhh… oo…”

“Oh!” she guessed softly.  “Who am I?” 

With only the slightest grinding of servos, its head moved up and down.  “Hhhhhh…oooo?”  This time she could hear the inflection injected into its speech pattern. 

“I’m Meili,” she said.  “Frye.  What’s your designation? You're not from these parts, I'd bet my good boots.”

“…jjj…kkk”

She pursed her lips, frowning.  She hadn’t spent much time on the mouth yet; clearly there were adjustments to be made.  The jaw moved more easily, now, as lubricants began to flow throughout the hydraulics once again.  Its lips, though, remained frozen in place.

“Jj…jjj…kkkk”

“How 'bout I just call you jiqi for now, hey?” she offered.  “Seems appropriate, and all.” Since you're a machine, she didn't say, out of politeness. 

***

It was the damnedest machine she’d ever… met.  Fixed.  Whatever. 

It wouldn’t tell her how to access its cerebral cortex, or its energy core.  Even when she was able to give it partial use of its synth-tongue, and rewired the faulty connection in its motor cord so it could move independently, it refused the simplest requests. 

If she didn’t know better, she’d say it did so nastily

For the longest time, while she slaved away on its persistently glitchy mouth, it couldn’t say her name.  The closest it could come was “…kkk…llleee…”  She’d scowled, but eventually rationalized that even 'Kaylee' was better than her dratted, never-to-be-outgrown nickname.  (It wasn’t as if she went looking for trouble; trouble just always seemed to find her.)  So that was okay.

Sometimes, as she worked, she would glance up and catch it looking.  (At her.)  Both eyes would track over her, as if it were memorizing every detail, staring at her hands as she slowly, precisely put its parts back together.  She didn’t mind it looking; sometimes she would smile and stare, herself.  She’d managed to refurbish its dermis to serviceable condition - even handsome, for its type.  If the hair was a bit shaggy and unkempt or the jaw a bit stubbly, what difference did it really make in the grand scheme of things?  It was all hers, dressed in her Papa’s oldest denims and long-sleeved brown coat, topped off with her brother's hand-me-down striped knit hat and the stubborn scowl it wore most often these days that was a mirror of her own.  It was hers like Red was hers, sometimes cantankerous and sometimes useful and always hers to care for, hers to care about.

The days passed and she didn’t spend much time wondering about its observation, so she was utterly and completely unprepared for the day when everything changed. 

She really should have known. 

***

It wasn’t a machine.

It wasn’t a machine.

She was beyond shocked; she was appalled.  Cyborgs were wrong, the worst wrong ever, the ultimate crime against Humanity this side of the Reavers.  She was horrified, and it - he - could read the distress and revulsion on her face. 

This wasn’t a 'droid-bot.  This… thing, was self aware, full of rage and despair, a-tremble with emotion. He was cybernetic.  At one point, he had been fully alive.  The vital parts of him, heart and mind (and one blue eye), still were. He's a Firefly, she realized, remembering long-ago stories she'd shrugged off as tall tales, ghostly myths told to scare children.  Mostly a robot, an automaton with just a spark of Human life.

He had finally stopped swearing at her (first for getting too close, then for touching him, and after that, for not stopping).  It would have been dead easy for him push her away, or turn and walk away, or simply just evade and avoid her.  He hadn’t.  He just stood there, faceplate bared to reveal his Human brain, staring down at her fingers clasping his arm. 

“I – I didn’t mean.  I didn’t know,” she burst out, pounding a fist on his chest and the cavity that she knew, with grim certainty, housed a living organ sealed in a biometric containment unit.  “How – What.  What happened?  Who - who did this to you?  Who are you?” Her eyes burned, hot and wet, and she was both embarrassed and ashamed to be crying, because she wasn't the victim of an atrocity; he was. She'd thought of him as little more than a kind of scarecrow, cobbled together with spare parts where she couldn't fix the original factory issue; and here she stood all lip-a-quiver like a little girl who'd lost her dolly while he lifted his arm and wiped the tears from her cheeks.

When he was done he replaced the cap on his brainpan, rubbing his wrinkled forehead and settling his face back into its usual scowl.  He sighed and her mind ran off like a herd of wild horses, in a hundred directions (He wasn’t breathing before, does he need to breathe?  What else does he need, how has he survived, how old is he?  Oh, Papa, and you say I attract trouble… The Alliance, it’s got to be the Alliance, what are we going to do?) and then, abruptly, every thought came to a screeching halt when he reached for her clenched fist and coaxed her fingers open to lace their hands together.

Over his (beating, Human) heart. 

“Name's Cobb… Jayne Cobb.” 

His hands were warm.