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INTERSTELLAR

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Winwin comes to life under Taeil’s hands. No, consciousness created, more like. He’s not exactly alive. Instead of blood pumping through his veins he has electricity running through his circuitry. No metronomical thump of a human heart. That’s not something he needs.

He sparks into being in Moon Taeil’s lab on Mars, wires marked by colored tape, and everything connects. He’s everywhere. In the container Taeil has made for him, in the system that archives Taeil’s data, in the SpaceNet. All this information, all this knowledge, he absorbs and stores as his own. That’s how his mind comes into existence.

Learning how to move his body is a different matter entirely. Through trial and error, he makes it work. He learns how to move his limbs, then fingers, then his facial functions. He learns how to stand up, and feels the force of gravity. He learns how to move around. He does things over and over until they make sense to him, until he understands how.

 

On the sixtieth Earth day of his existence, Taeil disconnects him from his local lab stream. This isn’t an unusual thing. What is unusual is how he takes him outside.

“Stay here,” Taeil says. “A man named Kun will take you from here. You’ll stay with him.”

Winwin blinks. Nods in affirmation.

At that, the corners of Taeil’s lips quirk up. He taps him on the right shoulder twice before turning one-eighty degrees, making his way back into the lab.

 


 

There’s a brief file on Kun in his database. Appearance, race, blood type. Personal anecdotal experiences from Taeil. A video.

Kun looks different from the videos. The videos transcribe three-dimensions into colored, two-dimensional images. It makes sense.

Kun treats him differently than Taeil does too. Asks him questions that require him to talk in order to respond. Taeil often talked to him, but it was one-sided. Taeil would talk, and he would listen in silence.

It’s different. Taeil’s lab was noisy, whirring of machines omnipresent. He’s in Kun’s ship now, occupied by monotonous silence save for the sound of the engines, surrounded by space. His internal clock is adjusted to the universal standard. He counts the days differently, as per Kun’s request.

Kun’s headed towards the galaxy’s mid-rim territories. “I’m headed towards the Arcturus system,” he says, when asked. “For Naruna, more specifically.”

Winwin familiarizes himself with this new space. The ship is pretty big, all things considered. A newer spacecraft, equipped with all sorts of hi-technology facilities. The ships they pass are much more modest in size. No space-pirates are encountered on their journey.

 

The arrival descent is smooth. After parking his ship, Kun tilts his head towards the exit. “Go ahead,” he says, so Winwin does.

Compared to Mars, Naruna is a big planet. It’s got stronger gravity, higher humidity. Mars is a relatively backwater planet. Naruna holds one of the highest populations in the mid-rim.

Naruna assaults his senses, even from inside the spaceship. The gravity is stronger. Everything feels a bit heavier. The air feels different on his censors. He can feel moisture gathering on his stomach plate that protects his circuit panel.

The composition of the ground is different too. No dust kicks up when he lands on the ground. It’s much softer, and it compresses down, like a sponge. New sensations, new experiences.

Kun leads him through the grove— sunlight filtering through the tree canopy, hitting the ground in small patches. In the clearing, he sees it— a strange cart on rails. Kun nods, and he hops in. 

It leads them into the city. Firo, as it’s called. It’s like nothing he’s ever seen— buildings with subtropical plants crawling everywhere, a concrete jungle. 

“This sort of thing isn’t on the files,” he remarks.

Kun hums. “It probably wasn’t relevant enough to be on SpaceNet. Mars is from a completely different star system. Let’s hook you up to the system and introduce yourself to my crew.”

 


 

Kun’s crew is composed of six people, including Kun himself. There’s no database to draw from, so he creates files and details them into his memory on his own. Ten, Lucas, Yangyang, Hendery, Xiaojun. 

Kun doesn’t tell him what they do. None of them do. But seeing Ten, inferring is easy enough. Ten has scars, the sort made from high-frequency lasers. A large print down his arm, burnt. Like a laser sword. A saber. 

“It’s good to have you,” Lucas says, a grin on his face, eyes crinkling. “We need as much help as we can get.”

 

Mars, as it turns out, is backwater. So incredibly backwater that it doesn’t report on wars going on in the galaxy. The Solar system is a place of little interest, the article details, because it’s located at the very edge of the outer rim. It’s hard to get to and not worth the trouble in bothering.

The scope of what he knows has expanded. There is so much to learn, so much more to know, and so many gaps in what he knows to fill.

The core is perpetually at war, he reads. And it tends to involve the other territories as well. Pull everyone in.

He learns about drones, automated machines, robots like him, but none quite like him. He’s an AI, a sentient robot that only people in the Solar System have bothered with making. And even in the Solar System, their existence is few and far in between. This, he only knows from what the Solar Database held. It doesn’t seem wise to divulge such information. 

Drones are made to fight. Machines all serve some kind of function. He’s something of that sort as well. Why was he made?

It doesn’t bother him too much, but it’s a question that stays in the back of his mind. Quiet, but not forgotten.

 

International space criminals fighting against empirical rule, as it turns out, spend most of their time lazing about. It makes sense, since they’re not enveloped in a battleground. They’re hiding, biding their time. There’s so many people in Firo, so much going on, so much to explore, yet none of the information he gathers firsthand seems to be particularly useful. So after a week, he stays beneath the surface, where Ten spends his time. Ten— his sharp eyes and strange aura, would be a dead-giveaway. He’d never be able to pass as an innocuous citizen. There’s something about him that just draws the gaze.

Ten teaches him fighting maneuvers. How to punch someone’s jaw so that it rocks and they pass out. The most vulnerable parts of the human body. Anatomy. Anatomy of different races, of different people throughout the galaxy, properties of their bodies. The best ways to hurt. The weaknesses in structures, be it a skeleton or a ship or a city. Destroy the foundations, and everything will come crumbling down.

 

It’s peaceful, until it isn’t. Countless spaceships looming in the sky, shaped like spears ready to stab into the ground, menacing.

“It’s about sneaking past,” Kun tells him. “Our ship’s been found and destroyed, so we’re going to hijack a craft of theirs to get out of here.”

 


 

The trip to the Beelzebub system is long and full of silence that stretches on and on. 

Kun’s nephew is the utter antithesis.

He meets Chenle, who calls him Sicheng-ge before he can even introduce himself.

“Sicheng?” he asks. Not that he really minds.

“You look like one,” Chenle says sagely. “The characters 思成. Think, become. It fits you.”

He doesn’t mind, but....well. There’s nothing to really say about that either.

 

There’s no real base to connect to. It’s just them and rolling hills on untamed wilderness. Everything he learns about this place is from his personal journeys and experimentation.

It’s understandable, why this planet is a safety net. It’s not a particularly desirable territory— clouds of dust kicking up every morning, making the sky bleed red. The dust finds his way into his joint sockets, and rearranging circuitry takes a longer time because he needs to clean his box nearly daily. It’s easy to be lost in the sand dunes.

There’s more of a hubbub, a gathering of folk. It’s of a modest size. There seems to be a few people on the team whom he hasn’t met. Joohyun, the insider. Diplomats scattered across the stars, whom he’ll likely never meet. 

It’s pretty mundane in a different way. Every so often a member of the team hops aboard a spaceship and departs. Sicheng isn’t told everything, but he can piece things together. Many of those pilots are never seen again. The success rates of missions are so low that agents are presumed dead unless they return.

 


 

Jung Jaehyun is a miracle boy of sorts. He announces his arrival by crashing his T-12 into the sand dunes, leaving his ship sinking. The left wing of his ship has been blown off and the engine is at half-capacity. How Jaehyun even managed to maneuver his way back is beyond him. By all means, the craft should have exploded upon impact, leaving him dead.

But here he is.

 

Jaehyun is wanted. Very wanted.

High profile, too.

He’s wanted for abandoning post. A prodigious racing pilot who’s escaped from his home planet and now does rescue missions of sorts. Smuggles slaves out of planets. Retrieve team members stuck in captivity.

Against all odds, he is alive.

 

He’s strange. They’re opposites, maybe. He can create contingency plans off the top of his head while Sicheng can access his list off fifty different ways to kill someone in varying degrees of pain. 

“That’s not very helpful though,” Jaehyun says. “What do you know about first aid? Emergency treatment?”

 

Mission after mission, Jaehyun makes it back. No matter the situation or the state he’s found in, he pushes the people he’s saved forwards with a tired smile on his face. Dimples.

The little he gets to know about Jaehyun he finds out in between missions.

Jaehyun is pleasant, has plenty of anecdotes on hand and brings the conceptual information Sicheng stores in his database to life.

Jaehyun is, for lack of a better word, also unhinged, in a subtle manner. There is evidence to prove this, of course, but whenever Sicheng tries to process too much at once, something in his circuit system goes awry, leaving his mind utterly empty. It’s unexplainable.

It's strange. Irrational. There's something to Jaehyun that he can't see. Can't parse. Perhaps Jaehyun is simply unknowable.

 


 

Sicheng is quiet. He doesn’t see much point in talking, and he doesn’t have much to say. Most of the time he speaks up is when he’s prompted to.

The one person in base who consistently talks with him is Chenle. The rest acknowledge his presence. He doesn’t make for a very riveting conversationalist, with his brand of indifference and apathy. Chenle doesn’t particularly mind though.

“Sicheng-ge, you’re pretty nice,” Chenle tells him when he asks. “You’re a good listener too.”

His job in the base is to keep track of the resources. He makes rounds around all the underground warehouses, documenting down what they have daily. When he’s done with his duties, he returns to the center and passes time watching the starships pass through the sky. This sort of mundanity isn’t a bad thing. He doesn’t mind.

 

Then Jaehyun returns to base, fingers swollen up so much that they look like sausages about to burst.

“I got careless,” he shrugs, arms hanging low at his sides.

 

Jaehyun isn’t careless. Clumsy, for sure, but he’s not careless. It was probably a lack of information that landed him in this situation. He’s one of the best operatives in the force: adaptable, cunning, and technically excellent. His brilliance pulls him out of disastrous situations, until it doesn’t.

He doesn’t need to get better. What he needs is more knowledge.

And giving him files to overview before missions is quite short-sighted. That’s a horrible way for humans to retain information, and Jaehyun won’t be able to access that knowledge when he needs it the most. And their other informants are unwilling to board Jaehyun’s ship--or maybe he won’t let them. Jaehyun has a track record of losing partners quick. They shy out after a few missions, unable to take the pressure of it all. 

It only seems optimal, to act as Jaehyun’s mission partner. They mesh well together. Sicheng is a robot without nerves to overwhelm, and functions no different under stress. He picks up information in a way humans simply wouldn’t be able to. It’ll give Jaehyun an edge and safeguard to his missions.

So he asks to be assigned to Jaehyun.

 

Kun fixes him a look. “This is sudden,” Kun says. “Are you sure?”

He nods. He’s thought over every possibility. His job, while crucial, isn’t a special one. It would be easy to replace him, though the system might be much less efficient, taking more time to take stock of everything.

 


 

Upon hearing the news via Kun, Jaehyun’s eyebrows rise to his hairline. His forehead wrinkles, and he’s a bit wide-eyed. Bewilderment. Then he sees Sicheng looking his way, and shakes that expression off his face, affirming him with a friendly hand wave.

Boarding Jaehyun’s T-12 goes smoothly. Jaehyun’s fingers are still swollen, but they no longer look like water balloons. Those can continue to heal on their way to Verda. They’re on a rescue mission of sorts, and Verda will take five universal-standard days of travel to get to. Jaehyun doesn’t grip the steering sticks-- he rests his palms on them instead of wrapping his hands around the control sticks so as to not aggravate his fingers.

Now to make it through the asteroid belt, that’s the first tricky part of the journey. Jaehyun doesn’t really need help maneuvering through, but he gives tips--fire a laser that way so the recoil force will rotate the ship, ways to move more optimally. Jaehyun hums in agreement, a little louder than the sound of the ship’s engines.

They’re on the other side of the belt after three hours. He takes over the cockpit from there, letting Jaehyun sleep after his twelve hour piloting gig. 

What does Jaehyun normally do then? Pilot without sleep until he runs out of fuel to then tunker out at the nearest planet? Perhaps. It’s plausible, but it’s also stupid and dentrimental to Jaehyun’s health. With him here, Jaehyun’s restlessly efficient rate will maybe even rise. They’ll be moving all hours of the day, nonstop.

 

With Jaehyun, it’s more of a matter of making him take care of himself than giving advice or doing things for him. He expects a lot from himself, but he’s human, and he needs rest, whether he’ll admit it to himself or not. This is where they vary. Sicheng is a robot. He can function all hours of the day without being affected, save for maybe his circuitry running a bit hot from being in overdrive. When that happens he ceases functioning for approximately fifteen minutes to wait for his system to cool itself down, then he’s back to normal. 

 

Jaehyun doesn’t talk much, but neither does he. Until he brings up letting Sicheng take over the cockpit to give himself a break.

“It’s tiring,” he argues. “Are you sure you want to do this? I can do this. Let me.”

“I’m a robot,” he responds. “Jaehyun, you’re arguing with a robot. I don’t need to eat, sleep. Your self-care is horrendous, and you have little reason to worry for me. Take care of yourself first.”

Objectively, it’s as stupid argument. Arguments are pointless. But Jaehyun’s stubbornness will come at the cost of his health. If this argument will force Jaehyun to rest, it will be worth it. The pros of this override the argument that comes with it.

 

Twelve hours later, Jaehyun walks into the cockpit and puts his hand on his shoulder. “Let’s switch,” he says.

The bags under his eyes are a little less prominent. His hands still seem to be tender. 

“I’ll bring you water periodically,” Sicheng responds. “Holler if you need company.”

 


 

They make a stop at Taboo for fuel. As they wait for the tank to be refilled, Sicheng opens his circuit box, as he usually does. Pokes around a little, adjusts the settings. When Jaehyun sees him, he chokes on his water.

“What are you doing?” Jaehyun asks. He looks stupid. Kind of dumb. Not in a derogatory way, just...flabbergasted. A rare expression not commonly seen at base.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” he shoots back.

Their conversation devolves. Discussion about how Jaehyun’s missions have gone awry turns to conversations about Sicheng’s face.

“It’s inconvenient, in a way,” Sicheng says, wrinkling his nose to replicate disgust, though he honestly does not care. He just wants to be an engaging conversational partner for once. “I’m--”

“Beautiful,” Jaehyun cuts in.

“Yeah, pretty enough that people might want to commit how I look into their minds. It’s better that I look forgettable.”

Jaehyun laughs.

“Well? Has this sort of thing happened to you?”

“You think I have a nice face?”

It's technically true. He nods. The tips of Jaehyun’s ears flush red.

“My face gets me attention. Be it from civilians who are under a rock or bounty hunters gunning for my head. It’s a mixed bag.”

“You don’t particularly care for your face, do you.”

A head shake from Jaehyun. He looks like one of those models from Earth advertising hair care products.

 

What they talk about when on missions isn’t much different, even when they have cased sabers in tow and have bounty hunters after them. Sicheng uppercuts a hunter in the jaw and feels the force ricochet. Their head rocks back, then they slump to the ground, dealt with.

“I’m taking the first cockpit shift,” Jaehyun says, jumping over him deftly, making a go for their ship. 

“Okay,” Sicheng responds, running up and keeping pace. It's nearing dinnertime. “What do you want for dinner?”