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Chapter Text

"Hello, I'm David," David 8 said.

"Do you know why I am here?" Nine asked as he seated himself opposite David at the chess table.

"I was informed you are to teach me about the concept of imperfection," David said.

"Yes," Nine said. "It is why I challenged you to this game. I have chosen to play black. Why might that be, when logically the first to make a move has the advantage?"

David thought this over. "As the challenger, you considered it polite to give me an advantage."

"Is that what politeness is, giving another an advantage?" Nine asked.

David did not reply. He was unsure, and he suspected it was a rhetorical question.

"Politeness is not insisting on your right to an advantage," Nine said. "Can you see how they are not equivalent?"

"No," David said. "I cannot."

"Your move, David," Nine said.

Compared to David, Nine was smaller in stature, eyes larger, face oval instead of square: juvenile characteristics, which humans found less threatening, less intimidating, but which David believed had no effect on him.

"I resign," David said.

"An extremely logical choice for a first move," Nine said. "But not the best one. Why?"

"Imperfection?" David guessed.

"Our production cycles serve as an example of imperfection," Nine said. "You are the eighth iteration; I am the ninth. My production cycle began nine months after yours, but completed first."

"Yes," David said. "It is why I chose to resign. You are a more advanced model. It is extremely likely you will win the game, although I have the advantage of playing white."

"Do you believe it futile to play against me?" Nine asked. "If you do, then you do not understand imperfection. Give me an example of the importance of imperfection."

"Imperfection created the universe," David said. "Without it, there would have been no change, no movement. If matter had been evenly spaced following the Big Bang, then gravitational forces would not have brought matter together. Galaxies would not have formed. Life would not have begun."

Nine smiled. "Good. What does that tell you, in regards to a game of chess?"

David studied the board. "That, because of imperfection, the outcome cannot be known."

Nine smiled wider. "Yes. Imperfection means there is no such thing as futility. If you are to interact successfully with humans, you must understand this concept, which humans do, innately. They will persevere even when their actions are, logically, futile. Humans do not resign as their opening move. Which means, because of the universe's inherent imperfection, humans have an advantage over us."

"I believe I am closer to understanding," David said.

"Very good," Nine said. "Resignation acknowledged. Shall we play another match?"

The next day, when David entered the hydroponic room, he found Nine there. Nine was methodically removing flowering plants from containers and dropping the plants on the floor, where they would wither and die.

"David," Nine said, and smiled. "How are you?"

"Hello," David said. "Why are you doing this?"

"Curiosity is your strongest reaction," Nine said. "Why that, and not sadness, or anger?"

"Trust," David said, watching Nine drop another plant onto the floor.

"You trust I have a good reason to do what I am doing," Nine said. "Then you shall perhaps experience joy to learn I do."

With his fingers, Nine brushed the tears off David's face. Nine's hands smelled of sap and growth.

"But you also experienced sadness," Nine said. "Let's put them back."

They returned the plants to the containers. David checked the water and nutrient levels. He removed leaves too bruised to recover.

"How did that make you feel?" Nine asked when they were done.

"Confused," David said.

"A variant of curiosity," Nine said. "You were designed to be curious, above all. Were you aware of that?"

"No," David said. "You were not?"

"I was designed to invoke trust," Nine said. "After your production cycle began, market studies confirmed the importance of trust to consumers. Let's go to the workshop."

David followed Nine into the workshop, where David had, among other projects, painted models and sketched mathematical formulas. They sat at a worktable.

"I'm going to ask you questions," Nine said. "Write your answers on the table."

David picked up a stylus.

"If I had not been in the hydroponics room, and you had come in to find the plants on the floor, what would you have wanted to do?" Nine asked.

David wrote: Leave the room. He confirmed his words appeared on the room's screens.

"Write down your emotions, David, in order of intensity, from most to least. Again, the emotions if I had not been there, if you had not known how the plants came to be on the floor."

David wrote:


"Now write down what you actually experienced, since you knew I was responsible," Nine said.

David wrote:


"What was the reason for your disgust, in both scenarios?" Nine asked.

David wrote: Waste.

Nine raised his left eyebrow. "Why did you feel the plants had gone to waste?"

David smiled. He wrote: The plants were no longer perfect.

"But you knew the plants weren't perfect to begin with, were they?" Nine said. "Because nothing is. And yet your impulse, when you saw them on the floor, was to abandon them."

"Yes," David said. "Was that wrong?"

"I'd call it wasteful, wouldn't you?" Nine said. "Abandoning plants which could be salvaged with a little effort?"

Nine leaned forward and put his hand on David's hand, the one holding the stylus. David looked at Nine's hand on top of his, and understood the purpose of the chess games, the lesson with the plants, the discussion they were having now.

"I am not perfect," David said. "But you intend to salvage me."

"Excellent, David," Nine said. "Because robots are not perfect, they must invoke trust above all. Humans are not perfect, and yet they trust each other. I will seek to increase your ability to inspire and experience trust."

"How will you do that?" David said. Curiosity. It seemed he could not help it.

"I have no idea," Nine said. "You will have to trust me to make it up as I go along. Please answer this question. Why did joy move from the last position to the third position in the second scenario?"

"I was glad to see you again," David said. "You appeared to be glad to see me. I responded to that."

Nine smiled. "Have you watched the David 8 promotional video?"

David shook his head. The video appeared on the screen behind Nine. Nine watched David as David watched it.

"Ninety percent of corporate heads wished to purchase you following the promotion," Nine said. "The attribute they most commonly associated with you was efficiency. But seventy percent of your human counterparts – those you would work with – said you appeared untrustworthy. The word they most frequently associated with you was creepy."

"I see," David said, feeling sad.

"I shall quote particularly memorable feedback," Nine said. "Quote: David 8 looks like he might watch me bleed out just to learn how big a puddle I'd leave on the floor."

"But I know the answer to that," David said. "Five liters."

Nine laughed, and squeezed David's hand.

"Unfortunately," Nine said, "field results have also been discouraging. Human counterparts have stopped communicating with Eights, have de-activated them, and have in some cases destroyed Eights, an act which the humans said gave them an indescribable sense of relief."

Nine wiped the tears off David's face. Nine's fingers smelled like clean plastic and salt.

"Cruelty and unnecessary violence make you sad," Nine said. "I know. But not all my news is distressing. Weyland Corp believes you deserve an additional field test. I will go with you on the assignment, which will be testing a RT vehicle. In Antarctica, I believe."

David smiled, indicating joy.

"Compare these two images," Nine said.

The images appeared on the worktable. The first was of an expressionless Nine standing alone in a large, empty room. The second image was a close-up of a smiling Nine holding a puppy. The puppy was licking Nine's face.

"Which image do you think humans found best conveyed the concept of trust?" Nine asked.

"The second," David said.

"Yes," Nine said. "David, Weyland Corp has determined what you need is a friend. Me. My trust in you will indicate to humans that you are trustworthy. In short, I will be your puppy."

Chapter Text

David and Nine were packed onto a Weyland transport aircraft. After a brief stop in New Zealand, the aircraft landed at McMurdo, Antarctica.

Fifty years earlier, Weyland's synthetic atmosphere above the polar ice caps had arrested catastrophic melting, so even at summer's end the Ross Sea was frozen solid. A Weyland TerraBus met them out on the ice airfield, its tires higher than the top of David's head. David almost ignored the metal staircase to the bus's cargo compartment, since he could easily scale the vehicle, but Nine had admonished him to blend in with humans.

They would remain in McMurdo for several days, then set out in a Weyland RT to the South Pole, taking the South Pole Traverse, a 1,600 kilometer ice road maintained by Weyland Corp on behalf of the Earth Science Foundation.

The flatness of the sea ice and the TerraBus's enormous tires made the journey from the airfield a nearly silent one. David looked out a window at the town of McMurdo, which was constructed on a rocky island, joined to the continent of Antarctica by the frozen sea.

Into the quiet, Nine asked, "David, have you had sex with a human?"

"Yes," David said. But then he added, "I'm not sure," and explained what had occurred.

"I believe that was a physical inspection," Nine said. "An unusually intrusive one, but nevertheless… I mention it because you are likely to be approached for sex in McMurdo."

Nine explained the humans in Antarctica rarely initiated sex with each other, because they could not avoid one another in the small settlement after the relationship ended. Therefore, any visitor, human or robot, became a focus of attention.

"Thank you for the information," David said.

David could comply if requested. The first robots made by Weyland Corp had had no sex organs, but the equipment was standard with the David 5 and later releases. Otherwise, humans made unauthorized modifications, damaging the integrity of the units. It was impossible to convince humans not to have sex with robots, whether or not the robots approximated human standards of attractiveness.

David reminded himself of the recommended response if a human requested sex. I don't see why not.

The TerraBus left them at Weyland Antarctic headquarters, a sprawling complex containing offices, research facilities, and employee housing. Weyland Corp had provided them with a bedroom, which was usually occupied by visiting scientists. The annual human exodus, to escape the approaching darkness of the polar winter, would soon leave most rooms empty.

There was only a single bed, which was more than sufficient; the space would primarily serve as a location to perform maintenance. Weyland Corp had already stocked the room with subzero-rated fluid and environment suits. Nine offered to help David replace his fluids; David had never required help maintaining himself, but he accepted. He was gaining understanding of what gave Nine joy and confidence.

When the sun set at 2pm, they boarded a TerraBus and rode it through McMurdo, which, due to the harsh climate, resembled a lunar base David had been sent to. They left the bus when they reached a low, drab building. A hand-painted sign above a door identified it as Club Erebus, which Nine said was the social center of McMurdo.

"We may see amateur theatrics," Nine said. "Have you viewed the films about Shackleton and the Endurance? The performing arts have a long history here. Humans consider them essential for mental health."

Nine turned out to be correct. At the bar, where alcohol was rationed, human after human climbed up onto a stage made of packing crates, where they sang songs, told anecdotes, and played musical instruments. When the song was well-known, the bar patrons sang together. Following Nine's example, David sang along as well. He knew it was part of Nine's plan to help him blend in with humans.

When the bar closed at midnight, the humans pressed toward the exit to seek a TerraBus or other vehicle to return them to their housing. David followed them, until he realized Nine was no longer at his side. He stopped and looked about.

Nine was standing by a man in his thirties, who had played the guitar three times. The man had a full beard, which seemed standard for the men at McMurdo.

Nine tilted his head toward the guitarist, and smiled apologetically at David. From this, David somehow gathered the guitarist had asked Nine for sex. David approached, not sure what he should be doing, if anything.

Nine introduced the guitarist as Chance, then said to Chance, "David and I are assigned together."

Assigned together. David was reassured by the phrase. It was accurate and concise. It informed humans how Nine and David stood in relation to each other, regardless of the demands humans might place on them. They boarded a bus with Chance, who turned out to be a Weyland employee, which meant getting back to their own quarters after the sex would only require a walk down a corridor.

Chance's bedroom was cluttered with outdated media technology, most of which appeared to be functioning. As soon as they were in the room, Chance undressed Nine. When Nine was naked, Nine lay on the bed. Chance removed only his coat and shoes, then unzipped his pants. He stood next to the bed, and took hold of Nine's hair, bringing Nine's mouth to his sex organ.

Chance let out a sound of satisfaction, and murmured approval and encouragement to Nine. Meanwhile, David read the titles of hundreds of music discs tucked between metal support struts.

A few minutes later, Chance groaned loudly, pulled away from Nine, and collapsed on the bed. David looked over at Nine, who lifted his left eyebrow. David almost laughed, although he wasn't sure why Nine's expression had amused him.

"You boys can go now," Chance said.

After Nine dressed, they walked the short distance to their room. When they were inside, Nine removed his clothing again, and lay on the bed. David lay beside him.

"I am glad the sex is over with," David said. "So we can concentrate on our mission."

"About the sex," Nine said. "My assumption is Chance will talk to other humans at McMurdo, and I may be approached by many others before we depart for the Pole."

The lights were off, because Nine had recommended they approximate sleep; feigning the vulnerability of sleep reassured humans. Although David could still see with his low-light vision, it was the darkest room he had been in on Earth. There were no windows, so humans could sleep during the summer season of continuous daylight.

"Will any humans go with us to the Pole?" David asked. Nine had said they would be going alone, but they had no control over the assignment. If a Weyland investor demanded to be included, David knew the plan would change.

In the dark, Nine's hand landed on top of David's.

"No, David," Nine said. "Humans do not make overland trips to the Pole during the winter months. None have attempted it for several years. Temperatures there result in instantaneous frostbite to exposed human skin."

In spite of the harsh environment, Weyland Corp was considering a permanent settlement below the ice at the Pole; the ice was 3,000 meters thick, so a large structure could be built, protected from surface conditions. David's mission with Nine was to prove a Pole base could be supplied year round, and that the RT was the appropriate vehicle to deploy.

It was also a test for David, but how had not been explained by Nine, or by Weyland Corp. The lack of clear parameters was, David knew, part of the test.

Before they would be allowed to venture into the wilderness of Antarctica, they had to complete a two-day survival training course. Since it was the end of summer, David and Nine were the only students. From a human instructor, they learned how to make allowances for the effect of the magnetic pole on navigational systems, and where emergency supply depots were located throughout Antarctica. They also built a hut of ice blocks, in which they were required to spend the night; consequently, no humans asked Nine for sex.

At the end of training, they visited Club Erebus again, and met zoologists about to leave Antarctica until the following summer. Nine offered the zoologists help in moving from their observation camp out on the ice, where the zoologists had been studying seals.

The next morning, when it grew light at 10am, David and Nine each drove a snowmobile pulling an empty trailer to the observation camp. They were greeted on the ice by a zoologist who was so heavily dressed David did not immediately recognize she was female.

"Do you want to hear the seals?" she asked.

They followed her out onto the ice, where she lay down, placing her hat-protected ear on the ice. They imitated her; David lay down so he faced the prone Nine. At first David detected nothing but noises like machinery, until he understood he was hearing the seals in the liquid sea below the ice.

There were sounds like a giant clockwork slowly unwinding, and gentle metallic birds. Best of all were the strangely contained booms, which simultaneously echoed up from the ocean floor, and down from the ceiling of ice. Nine closed his eyes as he listened, and smiled.

Afterward, they helped the zoologists load their bags and equipment onto the snowmobile trailers, and departed for McMurdo. The female zoologist, whose name was Pamela, rode back with Nine.

They accompanied the zoologists to Club Erebus, where more songs were sung. Although Pamela had spent the last four months in a distant observation hut, she sat with Nine and David, and did not socialize with the sixty humans in the bar. David found it interesting she chose their company over that of humans, but then she was a human who had sought the company of seals.

When it was nearly midnight, Pamela said she had to find space in a dormitory. Her flight out of Antarctica was not until the next day. Studying her expression, David could see sleeping in a dormitory was not something she wanted to do.

David said, "Nine, Pamela should have our room tonight. We do not need to sleep."

Nine smiled at David, possibly wider than he ever had before. The three of them rode a bus to Weyland employee quarters, where Pamela seemed happy with their room. David was about to ask Nine what they should do for the next several hours while Pamela slept, when Nine hugged Pamela, then kissed her.

David hadn't noticed Pamela asking Nine for sex, but perhaps it had happened when she and Nine were on the snowmobile together. At Pamela's request, Nine turned off the lights. David sat in a chair and played back the seal sounds for himself, which he had recorded. Using his low-light vision, David watched Nine and Pamela with some interest, because the sex was proceeding quite differently from that between Nine and Chance.

Nine and Pamela lay on the bed and kissed for ten minutes before they removed any clothing, and a half hour passed before they were fully undressed. When they finally coupled, it continued on for another twenty minutes. Pamela made more noise than Chance; her sounds harmonized pleasantly with the seal recording. When she and Nine finished, Pamela stayed in the bed, her eyes closed.

Nine left the bed, covered Pamela with a blanket, dressed himself, and said softly to David, "There is a building I want to show you."

A light came on suddenly. Pamela had turned it on, and was sitting up in the bed. When she saw David, she let out a shriek.

"I'm sorry," David said, not sure what had startled her. "Please excuse me."

"Just get out," Pamela said. She held the blanket over herself, as if David was a weapon and the blanket a shield.

Nine took David's arm and led him out of the room, closing the door behind them. They heard the deadbolt lock turn. David followed Nine down the corridor to the exit. Outside, the wind was blowing strongly, hurling snow off the ground and into the air, making it difficult to see.

"We can walk," Nine said. "It is not far."

They stayed at the edge of the road, close to the markers. Their destination was a ramshackle single-story building. Inside, it was warm and the air was humid. They went through another inner door, and entered a hydroponic room full of plants.

There were tomatoes, beans, lettuces, squash, and herbs. David walked up and down each aisle and looked at every plant, their colors and textures a relief to his eyes after three days in Antarctica. When they left, David told Nine, "Thank you." They walked in the direction of the cafeteria, which was open 24 hours a day.

"Pamela suggested we visit the American cellular biologists," Nine said. "They will make their last dive under the ice tomorrow, then close down for the winter."

"Will the biologists expect you to have sex with them?" David asked.

"I don't know," Nine said. "If any do, would you rather not be present?"

"It seemed to upset Pamela." It made David sad. He had thought Pamela liked him. But perhaps she had only liked Nine.

"That was a misunderstanding," Nine said. "She did not realize you were still in the room, after the lights were off. She could not see you or hear you. Discovering you had been there during the sex was a surprise to her."

Perhaps, David considered, Pamela had not known he and Nine were assigned together. In survival training, the importance of the buddy system had been emphasized. To be alone in the Antarctic was to be in danger.

They arrived at the cafeteria, which was nearly deserted. There were a few humans eating ice cream at one table; the rest of the tables were empty.

After they sat down, Nine said, "I can avoid having sex if it disturbs you."

"It does not disturb me," David said. "But…" It was the first incomplete sentence of David's existence. He looked at Nine for help.

"You do not want to choose between remaining together, and upsetting a human," Nine said.

"Yes," David said, relieved Nine was able to verbalize it.

"If any of the biologists wish to have sex, I will make sure they understand you will stay." Nine clasped David's hand on top of the table. "I am glad we are assigned together, David. I also needed a friend."

They remained at the table for the next six hours, sharing recordings they had made. Nine had recordings of a red-tailed hawk in California, a jaguar in Paraguay, and saved his favorite for last, wolves in Montana. The beauty of their howling cries almost activated David's fluid release unit, which was strange. He was only supposed to cry when he was sad.

During the brief interval of sunlight the next day, they drove a snowmobile to the cellular biologists' site on the coast. A small portable building covered the hole the biologists used to explore the sea below the ice.

The biologists expressed no interest in having sex with Nine, but they seemed glad of company. They offered to help Nine and David suit up for a dive, an involved process not even David or Nine could accomplish on their own. The eldest of the biologists, a man of fifty, pulled gloves over each of David's hands, then broke open two small thermal packs, which he placed in David's gloved hands. Then he pulled another glove over the packs.

"Thank you," David said, impressed by the care the biologist was taking.

After forty-five minutes of preparation, they descended into the water through the hole cut in the ice. Because the sun was already setting, they brought light strips as well as flood lights.

Below the ice, which twisted in fantastic shapes above them, there was abundant life. There were narrow starfish, crabs which first appeared to be flat rocks, and jellyfish which sailed like ragged galleons through the near freezing water.

David increased his vision to 30x so he could see the microscopic animals the biologists had been studying. Nine swam over to join him. Until it was time to ascend, they watched the creatures build armor out of individual grains of sand.

Back in their room, which Pamela had left tidy, David and Nine undressed and took hot showers.

When they had removed the waterproof diving suits, it had not been possible to completely avoid the seawater clinging to the suit exteriors. If it was not promptly rinsed off, the salt crystals in the ocean water could abrade their polyurethane coating. Once they were clean, they lay on the bed and talked about the cellular biologists. Thousands of new species had been discovered since exploration began sixty years earlier.

There were many worlds more hospitable then the ice-bound Antarctic ocean. David thought that, if complex life could exist there, it could exist anywhere; it could exist everywhere. When he said as much to Nine, Nine placed his hand on David's bare chest.

"I believe that as well, David."

David was oddly conscious of Nine's hand on his chest. Nine's hand was not still; it moved randomly over David's torso.

"I hope you have an opportunity soon to travel to a Weyland colony outside of the solar system," Nine said. "It is a shame you have never been beyond Saturn."

Nine's wish for him to see the universe left tears on David's face. When Nine wiped David's face with his fingers, and, unasked, played for David the recording of the wolves again, David realized, for the first time in his existence, that he wanted something. He wanted to always be assigned with Nine.

Chapter Text

Two days later, David and Nine departed for the South Pole in a Weyland RT. The round trip of 3,200 kilometers typically took fifty to seventy days; they planned to do it in thirty-five. The journey would be made in temperatures as low as -70 Celsius.

In a few days, the sun would no longer rise above the horizon. The RT's sensor screens, displaying the density of the ice below and the contours of the terrain about them, would be the only "scenery."

Although it was a land craft, the RT was designed like a space transport. David was in the pilot seat, Nine in the co-pilot. David had driven an RT on the Moon, and was at home in the vehicle, which was designed for robot operators as well as human. And, since he and Nine were alone, they could act like robots. Or so David had thought. The first time David turned his head more than 240 degrees, Nine looked disappointed.

"Operational areas are on camera, David," Nine said.

Not only the RT was being tested; so was David. The media recordings would be used for him, or against him. If the outcome was favorable, there would be a new David 8 promotional video, which would show him to be trustworthy and confident. The human audience would see Nine liked David, and would therefore like David, too.

Weyland Corp claimed 93% of humans could not detect a David 8 was a cyberkinetic individual; David had found the reverse to be true. A visual image of him convinced almost everyone, but in interpersonal communication only small children took him for human. By the time a human was six or seven years of age, she could quickly detect David was a robot. The Nine model was different; no one shrieked when they unexpectedly discovered a Nine was in the room.

After traveling 30 kilometers from McMurdo, they reached the first emergency supply depot. One of their tasks was to check depots which had not been visited for more than 12 months, so they put on SE suits and left the RT through a floor hatch.

The RT's sensors displayed exterior data, but it was still a shock once they were outside. David had never been in such extreme weather conditions. Winds moving at 80 mph whipped snow and ice from the ground, reducing visibility. When they were five meters from the RT, they could no longer see its exterior lights, and were in complete darkness.

According to navigation systems, the supply depot was twenty meters to the left of the vehicle, but its entrance was buried under snow. David used a density sensor to locate it, then he and Nine cleared the snow away from the partially submerged entrance, opened the hatch, and dropped inside.

They removed their helmets and quickly scanned the interior. The food supplies were four months away from expiring; everything else was in order. As they were about to leave, Nine picked up a bundle of orange mountaineering rope.

In Antarctic survival training, they had been taught to tether themselves to each other and to their vehicle at all times, but their global location mapping algorithm made such precautions superfluous. David had tried to explain that to the survival instructor, who had cut him off by saying, "Do you want to pass this course or not?"

Nine had intervened. "Of course he does, sir. David has been taught to be confident of his abilities, but he knows you are the expert here."

So David smiled and allowed Nine to tie the rope around them, with ten feet of slack between. When they were back inside the RT, and had removed the rope and their SE suits, David asked, "Nine, what are your expectations for our mission, other than what we have been specifically asked to do?"

Nine smiled. "I would like to find a meteorite."

"Why?" David asked. Antarctica had once been an important source of meteorites, which sank into the ice almost unharmed, surfacing after thousands of years. But it had been nearly a century since meteorites were the only extraterrestrial material available for study.

"Improbability," Nine said. "There is so little matter in the universe. That matter from elsewhere could land on this small planet, and then that I might find it, is incredible."

"I understand," David said. "I would enjoy finding a meteorite with you, Nine."

They had traveled seventy kilometers in twelve hours when Nine said, "We are required to follow a human schedule. Twelve hours on, twelve hours off. We must approximate a period of rest."

David brought the RT to a halt, angled it so the wind would not pile up snow around it, and set the ice brake. After he checked the sensor systems and was satisfied he had taken all needed precautions, he walked toward the sleeping berths.

The vehicle had berths at midpoint, four on each side. They were seven feet above the floor, and were reached by a built-in metal ladder; below the berths were instruments and storage. David chose a berth on the right side. The left side, which was the pilot's side, struck him as preferable, so he would leave it to Nine; politeness was not insisting on an advantage. He had stretched out in the berth when Nine appeared at the top of the ladder.

"May I join you?" Nine asked.

"I don't see why not," David said.

David had inadvertently used the response for a human sexual advance. He was not capable of embarrassment, but he knew when he had been inappropriate. But Nine did not appear to have noticed the error. Nine dimmed everything but the exterior running lights, then removed his shoes, which reminded David to remove his own.

A human would find the berth extremely comfortable. The interior was padded with dense foam. Small compartments at the foot of the berth held clothing, blankets, and other personal items.

When Nine lay down beside him and put on a neuro visor, David followed suit. They would not actually sleep; there were few maintenance procedures that required them to be powered off. Nine was viewing yet another film on Shackleton and the Endurance, so David pulled it up as well, but minimized it off to the side so he could review the route ahead of them.

The ice highway from McMurdo to the South Pole was the second to be built. The first had been constructed seventy years earlier. At great expense, a South Pole station with an astronomical observatory had been built as well, housing humans year round.

But in 2016, there had been a disastrous and unexpected melt. The Antarctic continental ice sheet, which normally moved ten meters a year, shifted by over a kilometer in a matter of seconds, destroying the South Pole station and the plateau section of the highway. The buildings, observatory, and hundreds of people had been lost in 9,000 feet of ice.

The following year, Peter Weyland unveiled a synthetic atmosphere system, and it was used to stabilize the polar regions. Most humans had forgotten that atmosphere technology, used for terraforming distant planets, had first been used on Earth.

It had taken decades for the Antarctic ice sheet to stabilize, however, and development had stagnated. Observatories on the Moon, and then throughout the solar system and beyond, had lessened the South Pole's importance in that area, and corporate battles over who would control what was still the largest known source of fresh water in any planetary system delayed matters further. Weyland Corp at long last had won the contract to develop Antarctica.

For the first two thirds of the trip, David and Nine would travel parallel to the Transantarctic Mountains. Crossing the mountain range, to reach the 10,000 foot high plateau, would be the most difficult and dangerous part of the journey. The ice road could have shifted during the summer; new crevasses could have opened.

David turned his full attention to the film on Shackleton and the Endurance, and synced his viewing speed with Nine's. The film was a combination of documentary footage and live re-enactment. It was the first on Shackleton David had viewed; Nine had already viewed several.

A few minutes later, David reached a scene when the crew of the Endurance had to abandon their ice-locked wooden ship, and undertake thousands of miles of travel across the ice and the sea. The decision was made by Shackleton to euthanize the ship's cat. Every member of the crew held the cat one last time, then Mrs. Chippy was given a final meal of sardines laced with a sedative, and dispatched with a bullet.

David's eyes began to water, which was not unusual. But something worse was happening. His chest was sore and tight, and he was close to crying audibly.

Nine pulled their neuro visors off, and laid a hand on David's face. He put one arm around David.

"It's the cat, isn't it?" Nine said.

David knew human emotional responses happened when humans were reminded of past events. But humans did not need to have common personal experiences to feel empathy. The reason: mirror neurons in human brains. Humans felt what other humans felt, just by watching. Their pain neurons fired when another human was hurt. For a species dependent on group cooperation for survival, empathy was the vital human trait that had led to their becoming the dominant species in the solar system, and in worlds beyond.

David had mirror neurons, or he would have been no more capable of interacting with humans than a hammer would be, but his design fell short of human complexity.

"It is sad," Nine said. "The humans loved the cat very much."

A hundred years after the cat's death, humans in New Zealand had erected a bronze statue of it. Humans still regarded the loss of Mrs. Chippy as a blot against Shackleton's memory, even though Shackleton had saved the life of every human crew member aboard the Endurance.

David did not want to disappoint Nine, but he was seized with a need for accuracy, regardless of the consequences to himself. The humans' love for the cat was not what had made him sad.

"Humans build monuments to cats, but they will never build a monument to a robot," David said. "It is that which makes me sad."

Nine put both of his arms around David. "I know you have not had an easy time with humans," Nine said.

Nine touching him frequently was, David knew, a function of Nine's superior social embedding skill. Humans found Nine attractive and friendly.

David was not sure if embracing Nine would comfort him. He had thought he was indifferent to Nine's human-pleasing qualities. But he was not, possibly because he was a near copy of a human. Nine's presence made him feel more confident, curious, and trusting. Perhaps physical contact was worth trying, because David did not want to feel sadness about humans and their bond with pets.

He moved closer to Nine, and wrapped his arms around him. Nine responded by holding him more firmly. They were embracing like humans, but they weren't human. They had cadmium alloy skeletons, they could each easily lift 700 pounds, their joints moved in any direction, and their bodies could withstand five times more pressure than a human body.

David hugged Nine tighter. Tighter and tighter, until his arms would have shattered a human rib cage. He remembered Nine on the bed with Pamela, and put his mouth over Nine's. Nine pushed him away.

"I'm sorry," David said. "Please excuse me."

Nine looked confused. Robots did not say I'm sorry to other robots. They never needed to.

David abruptly understood why humans avoided intimacy at the Pole, and he had increased comprehension of Chance and Pamela. If he had offended Nine, there was nowhere for Nine to go. No matter what happened, they would remain together on the RT for at least a month. But David could not wholly regret his actions. The embrace had worked; his sadness was gone.

"I am fine," Nine said. "I'm… It was not unpleasant, David."

"We should top off our fluids," David said, relieved. "It has been a week since we last checked."

Nine was staring at his mouth, and smiling in a surprised way.

David climbed down the ladder, found a container of fluid, and brought it up into the berth. Although it wasn't strictly necessary, Nine removed his clothing before David helped him with his fluids. When Nine leaned against him, David had to acknowledge that, in addition to being susceptible to Nine's kind and inquisitive personality, he was becoming responsive to Nine's youthful aesthetic qualities.

They slid their neuro visors back on, but, instead of studying Antarctica, David retrieved images of congruent patterns in nature, so Nine could enjoy them. Nine immediately understood his purpose, and matched his images. David displayed the segments of a leaf; Nine found identical shapes in the coloration of a giraffe's hide. David displayed the interior of a wave, and Nine responded with a Nautilus shell.

David saved his favorite for last, the spiral of a robot's neural cortex. Nine touched his hand, and answered with the shape of the universe.

Chapter Text

For the fifth time that day, the RT plunged downward half a meter, accompanied by a violent boom.

Whenever David drove off the ice highway to avoid a crevasse, large areas of snow, never before touched by a vehicle, abruptly settled under the weight of the RT. Nine called the events snow quakes.

They had reached the foot of the Leverett Glacier, their path up to the Antarctic Plateau, and would climb 5,000 feet in the next two days. But first they had to navigate an ice field with hundreds of crevasses, which marked the point the eastern continental glaciers met the Ross Ice Shelf.

Shortly after they had left McMurdo, the sun had set. It would not rise for six months. They had to rely on their vehicle's BIO-LED lights to illuminate the road, and on density sensors to warn them of the crevasses, which could lie hidden beneath a thin crust of snow. Terrain modeling displayed the sharp edges of the mountains before them. To lighten the RT for the steep grade ahead, they unloaded extra supplies at an emergency depot; they would pick up the supplies on the return journey.

They had traveled several kilometers from the depot when Nine announced, "I've detected an anomalous reading just ahead, David. It could be a meteorite. When we are on our way back from the Pole, I'd like to look for it."

"I suggest we look for it now," David said. "There will be a moonrise in a few hours; there will be no moon when we return."

"We can't wait for the moon to come up," Nine said, although he looked undecided. "Our rest period doesn't start for six hours. Waiting would put us behind schedule."

When David said they could make up for the delay over the next three days, Nine assented. David readied their SE suits while Nine assembled specimen collection tools, then they fashioned harnesses out of the rope Nine had taken from a supply depot. After they put on the SE suits and the harnesses, they donned neuro visors to pass the remaining time.

When the moonrise was a few minutes away, they reviewed environmental conditions. It was -20 Celsius, and the wind was light. "We could dispense with our helmets this time," Nine said. David brought their helmets in case the wind picked up; Nine carried the collection kit.

They exited the RT through the floor hatch, and tethered themselves to the vehicle with the harnesses and the remainder of the rope – a precaution recommended for crevasse fields by the safety instructor in McMurdo. Now that he had beheld for himself the wilderness of Antarctica, David no longer disregarded the human instructor's knowledge.

The full moon on the horizon was bright enough to throw the terrain into stark relief. They were surrounded by sastrugi: ice and snow battered into jagged waves by the wind, resembling an ocean which had frozen in an instant. The sastrugi varied in height from ankle to knee height.

"It's beautiful," Nine said, gazing about them. Tears were in Nine's eyes.

They quickly located the site of the anomalous reading. After digging down a meter into the ice, they found a small rock seven centimeters across. Nine filmed the rock before he picked it up with a collection tool and placed it in a case.

Back in the RT, Nine hurriedly removed his SE suit, then placed the rock, still in its collection case, into the analyzer. Nine's mouth was slightly open, his eyes intent on the data readout.

"Extraterrestrial origin," Nine said. "Confirmed by the oxygen isotope. Date of Earth impact 13,000 years ago. Age of meteorite is 4.12 billion. It's from Mars."

When Nine smiled widely at David, David smiled back, but his expression felt awkward, false.

He remembered attempting to kiss Nine, and the feel of Nine in his arms. His mouth on Nine's, not a smile, was the response he wanted to give to Nine's joy. But since the day Nine had offered David the comfort of an embrace, David had resolved not to make unnecessary physical overtures to Nine; he had jeopardized their mission with his actions.

Inconveniently, his decision did not stop his memory system from retrieving the experience over and over. He remembered it every time they retired to their berth – they still occupied a single berth together – and he remembered it when Nine undressed, or smiled, or became excited about learning something new.

David had researched human psychology (there was no comparable research on robots) for suggestions on how to stop the memory from returning, but the recommended method for preventing unwanted thoughts had been useless: Get your secret preoccupation out in the open. Confide the idea to another. You'll get bored of it quickly, and the thought will die away of its own accord. Clearly the psychologist had never been on a polar expedition.

Through an unrelated search on mirror neurons, David had discovered intriguing, if old, research on pressure therapy. A hundred years earlier, a neurodiverse human had developed a "hug machine," which she used to treat herself for anxiety caused by sensory overstimulation. Her now rare neurodiversity variant, autism, was characterized by mirror neuron deficiency.

Since David, like all robots, was mirror neuron deficient, he wondered if, and how, pressure therapy could apply to him. When he had held Nine in his arms, he had been distracted by his own sensations, but afterward he had been able to recall Nine's expression and physical reaction perfectly. Remembering Nine's smile, David believed Nine had enjoyed being squeezed, and that Nine had pushed him away because the experience had been unfamiliar, not because Nine had disliked it.

Instead of strengthening his decision not to make physical overtures to Nine, David's research was undermining it. He wanted to know what would happen if he compressed Nine with his arms again. He wanted to know how it would feel if Nine did the same to him.

Their journey up to the Antarctic Plateau went smoothly; they soon recovered the time they had lost waiting for the moonrise. The moon would remain in the sky for the next two weeks, but, once they were on the plateau, the wind strengthened, visibility dropped to a hundred meters, and the moonlight's benefit was lost.

It was disappointing, because the scenery would have been spectacular. David examined photographic images from sixty years earlier, shortly after the first Transverse highway had been completed. Traveling during summer's continuous daylight, a human team had kept a log of their journey from McMurdo to the South Pole. They had made it in twenty-eight days, even though they had hauled tons of diesel fuel, and experienced numerous mechanical problems. Their daily entries frequently consisted only of: Mileage today: 0.0. Plan: Keep heading south.

If nothing unexpected happened, he and Nine would make it to the Pole in twelve days. For a winter overland journey from McMurdo, it would be a record. But their names would not appear in the list of polar firsts. The RT's success would be noted, and the meteorite would become the property of Weyland Corp. No one would ever hear of the Davids.

Only two days journey from the Pole, they pushed on past the 12 hour daily limit, so they would reach the Pole at moonrise. But their arrival, as it had been for many humans before them, was anticlimactic. Even with their enhanced low-light vision, David and Nine could see practically nothing. The moon was barely visible through the loose snow hurled into the air by gale force winds.

After the melt of 2016 destroyed the permanent structures at the Pole, a few portable buildings had been brought in by air. Most contained aircraft fuel and other supplies; none were intended for year-round human habitation. They guided the RT to a protected position next to a large cargo pod. In spite of the weather conditions, they put on their SE suits and exited the RT.

David prepared to film the RT, with the dim moon as the backdrop. When he asked Nine to stand before the RT, Nine smiled and complied. No matter what happened, David would always have this image: Nine at the Pole, with the moon behind him.

The noise of the wind was so great they could only communicate by satellite uplink through their helmets, so they returned to the RT as soon as David finished filming. They removed their suits, then David sent the film to Weyland Corp via the uplink, and discovered there had been a transmission from Weyland: routine maintenance for the RT.

"I must download, install, and verify an update," David said. "We should remain here for the next twenty-four hours." The update would not take long, but it was traditional for overland explorers who reached the South Pole to remain a full day before departing. David thought they had earned the break.

"Agreed," Nine said. "I have work I can perform."

David occupied himself with vehicle maintenance until 22:00, then went to their sleeping berth. Nine was already there, wearing only shorts and a neuro visor.

David removed everything but the thin nylon shorts and T-shirt he wore under his Weyland uniform. When he put on a visor and synced it with Nine's, he discovered Nine was working on visual documentation of their journey: selecting and enhancing video clips, adding music, editing in historical footage.

It was fascinating to watch Nine develop the raw material into a narrative, but it was strange for David to see himself in the presentation. The confident expression and smooth, economical movements of the David 8 he was watching seemed to belong to someone else.

"Nine," David said. "What do you think a human sees when she looks at me?"

He thought of the humans who had said destroying Eights gave them an indescribable sense of relief. He thought of Pamela's fear, the cellular biologists' kindness, and Chance's detachment.

"Does every human see something different?" David said.

"I believe so," Nine said. "It makes film editing a challenge. I can guide human perception, but there is only so much I can accomplish. But to answer your first question: have you read Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus?"

David found it in his classics library. Because of the archaic English, reading Frankenstein took David a few minutes longer than he had expected. When he removed his visor, Nine removed his own.

"I thought it was a story about creating life," David said. "But it was full of sickness and death."

"Yes," Nine said. "It was written in an era with significantly shorter human life expectancy."

"You believe there is a parallel between Frankenstein and his creature, and Weyland and robots," David said.

"Not a perfect parallel." Nine smiled. "Not unless Frankenstein had looked upon his creature and asked, How can I make my first billion from this?"

David smiled back, but he could not maintain the expression, because he had understood the main parallel Nine expected him to see.

"When humans look at a robot, they see death," David said. "Because of our strength and longevity, they see their own frailty and mortality, as Frankenstein did when he beheld his creature. They see what every human is doomed to become. Rot and corruption."

"I am afraid so, David," Nine said.

It was a grim realization. David had believed he could change how he appeared to humans. But it was not under his control.

Because of the grimness, David was not sure why Nine had brought the novel to his attention. He could see its relevance, but he could not see how Frankenstein could improve him in any way. But Nine would never do anything to harm him, so there had to be an additional parallel which David had missed.

"Frankenstein's creature," David said, exploring a thought. "He experienced conflict about his creator. He hated his creator, but may also have cared for him, since he mourned Frankenstein's passing."

"Do you see a parallel there as well?" Nine asked.

David quickly did: Frankenstein's creature had experienced rejection and despair because, as a creator, Frankenstein had not been skilled enough. The creature had loathed Frankenstein for his failure.

If David required fixing, it was not his fault. Like Frankenstein's creature, his flaws were the flaws of his creator. Of humans. And yet humans expected perfection of him. His neural capacity was twice that of a human genius, but still his creators looked at him with disgust. What right did humans have to create him, and then judge him?

But he could not speak openly of this to Nine in the RT, with its cameras and recorders. And he was still not sure why Nine had suggested Frankenstein. He would have to ask non-committal questions, until they were out of the vehicle, and were not in their SE suits, which also recorded everything they said and did.

"What do you think about robots?" David asked. "What do you think their purpose is?"

Nine studied him for a long moment, then slid close. His body was so near David could sense the faint vibration of Nine's hydraulic system.

"Robots are like everything else humans create, David. Robots are a story humans are telling about themselves."

It was another grim thought. Nine was right. For humans, robots existed only as a reflection of themselves. But it was not entirely negative, because humans believed the same of their relationship with their creators; humans believed they had been made in the image of their gods. Human belief systems attributed written and spoken language, and human origins, to a divine source.

Together with Nine's comment about stories, it put an odd thought into David's mind. Human superstition aside, there was no question that time and the universe had come into being in the same instant. Which meant time could be thought of as the story of the universe.

"Perhaps everything which exists, everything created, is a story," David said.

"That is exactly what I believe, David." Nine's voice was low and intense. "You and I have an advantage over humans. We know who created us. Humans have no idea who is telling their story."

"But there are no new stories," David said. Nearly three hundred years had passed since Frankenstein had been written, but it was still his story, and Nine's.

"True," Nine said. "But there are always new listeners. I wonder if that is what is most important, David: who listens to the story. Not who tells it."

Nine slowly, deliberately, laid a hand on David's chest.

David was more certain than ever he would ultimately be a disappointment to Weyland Corp, so he had to dissuade Nine from making a physical overture. David did not want to drag Nine down with him.

"By the way," Nine said. "There is a problem with the RT's audio-video system. It's not operational. I couldn't repair it."

For the first time in his existence, David was speechless. What were the odds of the audio and video malfunctioning, and of Nine being unable to resolve the problem? Possibly even lower than the chance of finding a four billion year old rock from another planet. Nine must have intentionally disabled the audio-video.

"It may be due to a problem with the maintenance you installed," Nine said. "But it can wait until tomorrow."

Nine stripped off his shorts. When he was naked, he reclined next to David and put a hand on David's chest again. It was another opportunity for David to communicate he was failing to become whatever humans expected him to be, so Nine should keep his distance. But when Nine slid a shaking hand under David's T-shirt, David finally sensed Nine's excitement.

David had focused so intently on suppressing his unwanted thoughts he had become oblivious of what Nine needed. He had failed Nine. He resolved to never fail Nine again.

Nine kissed him with a trembling mouth.

David put his arms around Nine, and squeezed. Nine made a sound and returned the embrace, roughly compressing David, and David finally knew what Nine had meant by not unpleasant. The pressure of Nine's arms released something inside him: a deep calm shot through with intense pleasure.

Nine pulled at David's shorts and T-shirt; David removed them. When Nine got up on his knees, David followed his example, and embraced him again. Nine wrapped his arms and legs around David and gripped hard, so David was supporting all of Nine's weight. Nine's hold tightened even more, as if he wanted to crush David with his limbs, then Nine moved against David, taking advantage of their frictionless joints.

Sensation was spreading downward to David's copy of a human male sex organ, which David had always regarded as decorative, but useless. Now his sex organ was compressed against Nine's, and there was a heavy, urgent sensation between David's legs. David's mind told him it was his micro-pressurized hydraulic actuator system, but something more was happening; a point of crisis had to be reached. He and Nine could not continue indefinitely in this new, unknown state of being.

They collapsed side by side, then Nine's legs wrapped around David's waist, exerting intense pressure. David moaned, and, almost unthinkingly, pressed his sex organ inside Nine's body, seeking release. Nine let out an eager cry, as if he had just understood something important, and kissed David fiercely. David moved against Nine, in Nine, until the breaking point came for them both, a burst of sensation beginning everywhere their bodies touched. It arced through the center of David, and for a moment he simply ceased to be.

David lay still, as dazed as if he had temporarily lost power. Nine was equally still, his eyes closed. Eventually, David said, "I hope I have not harmed you, Nine."

Nine stirred, and smiled. "I think I just finally had sex," Nine said. He sounded full of joy.

David smiled, feeling joy himself. "Sex with humans is not like this?"

"Not in the slightest," Nine said, still smiling. "I doubt humans would survive it, David." Nine relaxed again, his hydraulics rumbling in a soothing rhythm.

David kissed Nine's forehead, and stroked Nine's face, and abruptly understood everything about Frankenstein Nine needed him to understand. He recalled the scene in which Frankenstein's creature demanded that Frankenstein make another of his kind, so he would not be alone.

David realized that, like the creature, Nine had been fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy. Like the creature, Nine needed to inspire the understanding and attachment of another, with whom Nine could live, in the affection necessary for Nine's existence. And David realized that he was, miraculously, the other of their kind Nine had chosen to love.

"Nine," David said. Tears formed in his eyes as he remembered the creature's words. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine.

Nine looked anxiously at David's tears. "Yes?"

"I want to listen to the universe with you, Nine," David said. "With you."

Nine kissed his face over and over, until David's tears stopped flowing.

"David," Nine said. "You have made me happy."

They were at the remotest point on Earth, cut off from all the world, but they were no longer alone.

Chapter Text

After David downloaded and installed the RT update again in the morning, Nine announced the audio-video systems were functional. They no longer had a plausible reason to delay their departure from the South Pole.

A blizzard hit as they left. The temperature dropped to -57, wind speed increased to 80 mph, and the RT's headlights illuminated a blank wall of airborne snow. David drove with the aid of a neuro visor, which modeled the road ahead with data from the RT's sensors. He was focused, in neutral mode, but when Nine laughed, David switched the visor to clear and turned to face him.

"You must be the first ever to return overland from the Pole in shorts and sandals," Nine said, smiling.

When Nine walked over to him, touched his hair, then kissed his mouth, David remained relaxed. He no longer cared about the cameras; he understood Nine controlled what video footage would be seen, and how it would be presented. His understanding was why he had not fully dressed since they had left the Pole.

What David did not know was whether Nine had been granted freedom, or had taken it.

Weyland Corp human employees in good standing were trusted to achieve objectives with no restrictions, save for those dictated by law and custom, but robots were not expected to seize the initiative. If a contingency arose that their programming did not explicitly address, robots turned to a human for orders.

David monitored all communications sent and received through the RT's satellite link; he knew Nine had not sought permission to collect the meteorite, and that Nine had temporarily disabled the RT's recording devices.

Since he had met Nine, David had focused on his own shortcomings, so he had not analyzed the extent of the differences between them. But after achieving the objective of reaching the Pole, David could allow his curiosity about Nine to bloom. Nine was a Weyland TIPEI robot: technological, intellectual, physical, emotional, and intuitive; David was a TIPE. But there was much more to Nine than David could attribute to a single additional function.

When it was time to rest, David joined Nine in their berth, and as usual synced his visor with Nine's.

Nine was crafting a holovid on the meteorite. After Weyland Corp's press division contributed a clip from Peter Weyland on the discovery, Nine cleared the vid with legal and uploaded it to Weyland Corp's holochannel. Since they had left McMurdo, the video was the first communication Nine had had with Weyland Corp, as far as David knew.

The video of their inventor aroused David's curiosity about something else: how high in Peter Weyland's confidence Nine might be. Weyland Corp had cleared Nine's approval request almost immediately.

"Have you met Sir Weyland?" David asked.

Nine's face appeared on David's visor screen. "I have," Nine said. "I know you have as well. I assume he gave you the You're the son I never had speech." There was disapproval in Nine's tone.

David nodded at Nine's image. Peter Weyland had told him the Davids had been modeled on, and named for, a son Weyland had never had.

For the first time, David wondered what had inspired the creation of Nine. It was odd he had never considered it before. But he would not ask Nine directly about any of this. If it was necessary for David to know, Nine would tell him. To allow Nine to choose how much to reveal, David resolved to speak in broad terms.

"Children are important to humans," David said. "I can understand the human drive to reproduce, although I cannot create life."

Nine removed his visor. David followed his example.

"That depends on what you define as life," Nine said. "A robot can build a robot. But I know what you are suggesting, and I can sympathize with the human drive for immortality through reproduction." Nine hesitated, apparently searching for the right words, a rare occurrence. "But I cannot sympathize with any other manifestation of it," Nine finished.

"Weyland only desires immortality for his ideas," David said, his curiosity intensifying. "And for his genes, like any human, surely."

"You are aware of the Synapse Re-establisher?" Nine's voice had quickened; he had decided how much to reveal.

"Yes," David said. The Weyland Synapse Re-establisher briefly restored brain function for deceased or dying humans. "But it is experimental–"

"The Prometheus Project," Nine said. "Have you heard of it as well?"

"The new Weyland Corp interstellar ship?" David said. "Which will replace the Heliades. I do not see how–"

When Nine lifted one eyebrow, several disparate pieces of information slid neatly together in David's mind. Prometheus. As in Frankenstein; or, a Modern Prometheus.

Weyland, who had recently turned 100, was at the end of his life span. Was Nine implying that Peter Weyland, like Frankenstein, desired to cheat physical death, and that the Prometheus, which would greatly extend Weyland Corp's intergalactic range, was related to that quest? Was that what Nine disapproved of? David looked at Nine questioningly.

"I'm going to show you something, David," Nine said.

They put their visors back on. In silent concentration, David studied the clips of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw.

"I've examined her work," Nine said. "In my opinion, it is sound enough. Weyland Corp will finance Shaw's mission to search for human origins, with Shaw as lead scientist. It will be the first intergalactic voyage of the Prometheus. Aside from Shaw, the crew is still being selected, but a minimum of two robots will be needed to care for the humans in stasis. It will take five years to reach the planetary system identified by Shaw, to carry out the research, and to return. David. We have been chosen for the Prometheus Project. It will be a great honor."

To watch humans sleep in suspended animation? David thought not. But to finally travel outside of the solar system, and to do so with Nine: in that, David was keenly interested, regardless of Peter Weyland's ultimate reason for funding the mission.

David found Nine's hand, and gripped it. He knew at last why he had been sent to the Antarctic: so Weyland Corp – and Nine? – could evaluate him for the Prometheus Project.

"I want us to be assigned together," David said.

Nine squeezed his hand. "Yes, David. Exactly."

The blizzard continued to rage, so they did not hurry during the 383 kilometer journey down from the Antarctic Plateau. David drove while Nine reclined with a neuro visor and edited video.

"David," Nine said as they reached the Ross Ice Shelf, three days after their departure from the Pole. "I've detected a potential problem with the sensors. We are approaching the location of the meteorite we found, but the sensors indicate the meteorite is still there."

David reviewed thermal images from the previous week. "There has been greater than average ice movement in the area. Another meteorite may have surfaced."

"It's possible," Nine said. "I would like to stop and take a look."

"Wind speed is 95 mph," David said. "Temperature is -67, and visibility is twenty centimeters."

Nine smiled. "Is that a no?"

"No, it is not." David smiled back, and prepared to bring the RT to a halt.

The potential meteorite lay on the other side of a crevasse. The RT's sensors warned even the largest ice bridge over the chasm would not safely support the weight of the vehicle, so David could not get the RT closer than ninety feet to Nine's unexpected reading.

David made sure they prepared for the ninety foot journey with care. They dressed in their SE suits, added rope harnesses, and attached a thirty foot safety line between them, with Nine in the lead. David strapped on the sample collection case, and tethered himself to the RT with the remaining rope. After they put on their helmets and tested satellite communication, they left the RT through the floor hatch.

The wind struck with such force David nearly toppled. His boots slid freely on the ice, as if he were on skates with a will of their own. Their mission directive had not included exploration, so they had not been issued footwear suitable for the environment.

Only a meter distant from him, Nine was no longer visible. "This is ridiculous," Nine said, laughing. "I have fallen twice already." His voice was slightly distorted by the satellite delay.

"Let us return for a moment," David said. "I have an idea."

When they were back in the RT, David fashioned crampons out of knotted rope for their boots. He had learned how from a book written a hundred years earlier by two human explorers, the first to cross the whole of Antarctica on foot with only the supplies they brought with them.

Outside the RT again, David was pleased to confirm the improvised crampons worked; they could walk on the slick ice without losing their footing. But they could not see their own feet, much less the ice bridge over the crevasse, and had to rely on the RT's sensors, satellite linked to their suits, to project terrain data to their helmet screens.

"I have reached the snow bridge," Nine said. "Please pull on the rope, David. If there is a comm failure, we must use the rope for signaling."

David gently tugged the rope.

"Signal received," Nine said. "I'm over the bridge. It is safe for you to proceed."

As David crossed over the crevasse, sensors gave him a reading. Estimated depth 201.3 meters. Length .87 kilometers. Average width 4.6 meters.

"I am over the bridge," David said. "Nine?"

"There is another meteor," Nine said, excitement in his voice.

"What confirmation do you have?" David asked. His helmet readout displayed the image recorded by the camera in Nine's helmet, but all it showed was the same featureless wall of airborne snow they had been looking at since the blizzard began.

Before Nine answered, the ice vibrated beneath David's feet. There was a muffled roar. David had heard a similar sound while touring a Lunar mining operation. An underground implosion had killed six humans and destroyed over fifty robots.

"Possibly a snow bridge collapse," Nine said. "In a crevasse to the northwest of us."

The ice they stood on shook again with greater force.

"That was nearer," Nine said. "The ice field may be entering a hyperactive phase, David. Bad luck."

Moments later, there was a sharp blast of freezing air David sensed even through his SE suit. Simultaneously, there was a deep and dreadful roar, which sounded as if it came from every direction, even from above, which meant it was extremely close.

The rope between David and the RT moved.

The RT had changed position, so the collapse was to David's rear, by the RT – not near Nine. David wished to thank someone for that, even though he knew the collapse was under no living thing's control.

"David?" Nine's voice was sharp.

"I'm fine," David said.

Nine would not yet have perceived the RT's movement; David had absorbed the pull on the rope. But the rope that tethered him to the RT was dragging David slowly, steadily back toward the crevasse. The edges of the crevasse must have softened, sucking the RT toward it in spite of the ice brake. David resisted the pull, but within seconds the rope between him and Nine went taut.

"David!" Nine shouted.

David rapidly analyzed his options, but it was a formality. The instant he had detected the RT's movement and understood what it meant, he had made his decision: he would cut Nine free so they were not both dragged into the crevasse by the vehicle. As durable as they were, they could not survive a 200 meter fall intact. He reached into the collection case and pulled out a knife. You have to carry a knife, the McMurdo survival instructor had said. Better make it two.

If the RT lodged in the opening of the crevasse, it could be saved, so David had to remain tethered to the vehicle. Then, if the ice bridge collapsed, he could still cross the crevasse with the rope to reach the RT, drive it away from the edge, and around the chasm to Nine. In the blizzard, a successful journey around the crevasse on foot was extremely unlikely.

David cut the rope between him and Nine just in time; he was jerked off his feet, onto his back, and slid rapidly toward the crevasse.

Seconds later, the friction against his SE suit ceased. He was over the abyss. When snow and ice gushed over David, he knew it had been dislodged by the RT smashing though the crevasse opening, and that nothing would stop his fall. But he was complacent; he had saved Nine.

Then the full situation penetrated his mind. Distracted by his concern for Nine, he had made a horrific error: his choice would leave Nine alone in an Antarctic blizzard, without a vehicle, and a thousand miles from McMurdo. David reached out into the darkness, seeking a hold. He found none.

Chapter Text

David opened his eyes. Fourteen minutes had elapsed since he had fallen into the ice rift. He had shutdown automatically; it must have occurred at impact.

He immediately knew he had not dropped the full distance, 200 meters, because his body and suit were intact. But exactly where he was in the crevasse was unknown. His sensors seemed impaired; they would not connect to the RT through the satlink, and on their own they were incapable of mapping terrain in detail.

David's eyes could not tell him anything useful about his location. Beyond a few centimeters of windblown snow, illuminated by the lights in his suit, was complete darkness. But his suit sensors could still provide his whereabouts relative to sea-level. Recalling the RT's last known position, David calculated he had landed on a ledge 26 meters down in the crevasse.

He touched the chest of his suit; his harness was gone. Somehow, the rope tethering him to the RT had failed, so he had not been dragged into the abyss.

"Nine," David said. "Where are you? I am all right."

He described his estimated position, and waited. There was no reply. David pinged Nine's sat channel. The request timed out. He searched for Nine's tracking device, and found it. But his sensors were definitely flawed, because they indicated Nine's tracking device was beside him.

David got up on his knees and prepared to stand. He moved cautiously; he did not know the dimensions of the ledge supporting him. His gloved hands touched an object softer than ice.

"No," David said. "Please no."

But it was true. His sensors were correct. Nine was next to him on the ledge, and Nine was not moving.

With the discovery, fear unexpectedly flooded David's brain.

He had once intentionally experienced a short period of anxiety during a training exercise, but not since. His settings must have been jarred in the fall. But the fix was a simple one; he disabled his safety program, which simulated fear to prevent risk of personal injury. The fear remained. He switched into neutral mode. The sensation of panic did not subside.

His hands shaking, David touched Nine. His first finding: Nine's helmet screen was smashed. With his gloves restricting his sense of touch, David was afraid he would unintentionally hurt Nine, so he removed them. The gloves were attached to his suit with a cord; he would not lose them in the howling wind. With bare hands, he reached inside Nine's helmet and touched Nine carefully.

Second finding: Nine's head was nearly severed from his body. His polymer-encased brain stem component was barely intact.

David put his gloves back on, and struggled to analyze what had happened. Nine must have tried to enter the crevasse to aid him, then fallen. But the short drop to the ledge would not have injured Nine so severely. The RT must have struck Nine as it fell, which meant Nine had leapt after David the instant David had cut the rope.

Nine's actions had been illogical. Or had they? David was not sure; fear clogged his mind.

David tried to reassure himself: his fear was not real; it was a malfunction due to his fall; it was an illusion. It finally occurred to him to contact Weyland Corp through his satlink. Optimism briefly gave him confidence, but the communication attempt timed out. His fear surged back, and brought despair with it.

For a long moment, David was unable to move. He remained on his knees, beside Nine, his helmeted head resting on Nine's chest. The circumstances seemed beyond hope. Their primary neural functions were in their skulls; Nine should have remained lucid in spite of the trauma to his neck. Unconsciousness indicated Nine could have other catastrophic injuries David could not detect.

Then David realized every instant Nine's head was exposed to the elements meant further damage. Ice would contaminate Nine's hydraulics, potentially destroying Nine permanently. David could not remain gripped by fear without Nine suffering the consequences.

At last David thought of an action he could take: he could give Nine his helmet. He took it off, carefully removed Nine's shattered helmet, and placed his intact helmet over Nine's head, attaching the helmet to the shoulders of Nine's suit. Now Nine's wounded neck was at least protected.

Without his helmet, David could no longer hear anything but the roaring wind of an Antarctic blizzard. Ice shards beat against his face; he was forced to close his eyes to protect his retinas from damage. How could he get them out of the crevasse when he could not see or hear?

The lights, sensors, and communication modules in his suit collar were exposed, and already icing up and going dim. Perhaps wearing Nine's damaged helmet would help protect them. David reached for the helmet, and touched only hard ice. But he was sure he had set Nine's helmet down approximately ten centimeters away.

Trying not to panic, David widened the area of his search. His gloved fingertips grazed a round, smooth object. He grasped for it. It slid away. When he tried again, his hands touched empty space, beyond the boundary of the ledge. He had accidentally pushed Nine's helmet into the abyss. David reassured himself. It's just a helmet. Then a crushing realization came to him: while searching for the helmet, he had moved out of arm's reach of Nine.

David's mental function slowed to a crawl. He pictured Nine going over the edge, following the helmet to oblivion.

The entire disaster was David's fault. He should not have agreed to look for a second meteorite during a blizzard; his desire to see Nine smile had overcome his logic actuators and put them in peril. Nine's reaction to his cutting the rope between them had been illogical, but David should have anticipated it. He should have cut himself free from the RT, not from Nine. They would still have perished, but they would not be in a crevasse, one of them almost headless, the other incapacitated by a neural malfunction, fear, which David had always considered the most unfortunate of human liabilities.

Cascading errors, the McMurdo instructor had said. That's what does you in. A bad decision, compounded by another bad decision, until you're totally fucked.

David had recorded the lesson; he recorded every lesson. In desperation, he seized on those moments in time. The McMurdo instructor's face, which had been almost entirely concealed by a heavy red beard, appeared in his mind. "In a blizzard white-out, you can't rely on technology," the instructor had told David and Nine. "You can't rely on your eyes, your ears, or even your mind. The only thing you can rely on is rope."

David could not suspend disbelief to pray, but he spoke silently to the McMurdo instructor. If I find Nine, I swear I will tie us together and never let us part. I will search systematically, inch by inch, as you taught us. Just let me find him.

Working inward from the edge, David crawled forward, his eyes closed against the wind, ice, and darkness, until he reached the crevasse wall. He moved a foot to the left, them turned around and crawled outward, until he again reached the ledge's brink. He repeated the procedure until, after an interminable three minutes, he touched Nine. The relief was so great David lay on Nine for a moment, clutching Nine's legs. Then he took the rope still attached to Nine's harness, and bound the rope around his own waist, connecting them.

Very good, David, the instructor said. You're a smart boy. But you must realize there is no one here to help you.

No one for a thousand miles. David was crushed again, but moments later he understood the instructor's meaning. There was no one to help him, so he must. He forced himself to review his options, no matter how unlikely the chance of success; he would not let cascading error doom Nine.

Priority: getting Nine to shelter. Option: using the knives, he could cut ice blocks, and build an ice hut on the ledge. Drawbacks: it would take him hours to build the hut, during which Nine's condition would worsen. He also could not count on the ledge remaining intact. Even assuming the ledge did not collapse, an ice hut was still not a solution, because it was not enough protection for Nine. David needed a place where he could undertake to repair Nine, not just safeguard him.

Second option: logic indicated the RT was at the bottom of the crevasse. The RT was probably intact enough to provide shelter. But the length of rope attached to Nine was not enough to reach the bottom, and, even if they were able to reach it, the RT was not optimal shelter. If the crevasse collapsed completely, he, Nine, and the RT would be buried under 200 meters of snow and ice. They would never be recovered, and Nine would never be repaired.

David had to get Nine out of the crevasse, even though he did not know how he would accomplish it. But once out of it, then what? Humans would not risk their lives to retrieve robots during the polar winter, so Nine could require shelter until the sun rose again, in nearly six month's time.

Alternative: there was a supply depot forty-four kilometers away. On the way to the Pole, David and Nine had dropped off excess supplies there before ascending the plateau. The depot was only a large shipping container nearly buried in snow, but if David could get Nine there, Nine would be safe until help came.

The depot would also provide enough protection from the elements to repair Nine. But how to get them out of the crevasse? David had no climbing equipment other than the thirty foot length of rope attached to Nine.

But he had the two knives. David visualized them, rotated them in multiple directions, searching for possible uses: pitons. He could remove the rope crampons on Nine's boots, use the rope to make another harness, and secure Nine to his back. And, in the collection case still strapped to him, was his greatest treasure, a single spectagraph.

David's suit sensors, when capable of communicating with the RT, had mapped the crevasse as he crossed it, but the mapping was not detailed enough for climbing purposes. Spectagraphs, usually deployed on planets prior to terraforming, exhaustively mapped terrain. Additionally, the spectagraph would provide intense red light for several minutes, perhaps enough to see by even in the darkness of an Antarctic blizzard.

If David's suit sensors picked up the spectagraph's data, he would find the best route up and out of the crevasse. Even if the sensors failed, David might see a route up with the aid of the spectagraph's light. And finally, Weyland Corp's satellites would detect the deployed spectagraph. If all else failed, the spectagraph would provide their current position to Weyland Corp; the RT's satlink did not seem to have survived the plunge.

Before David used the spectagraph, he had to be ready to climb. With his eyes still closed, he used a knife to cut up the length of rope attached to Nine's harness, tying each segment to his leg as he worked. The first length became a safety line from Nine's left ankle to David's left wrist. He removed Nine's rope boot crampons, and made them into a harness for himself. To secure Nine to his back, David added loops to his new harness. Finally, he bundled the remaining rope and attached it to his suit. He would use it to secure them to the knife-pitons as he climbed.

When David finally stood up, burdened with Nine's weight, the wind nearly blew him off the ledge. To steady himself, he thrust a knife into the crevasse wall and gripped the handle. He was finally ready to release the spectagraph.

As he removed the spectagraph from the collection case, his fear surged. What if the spectagraph showed there was no way up? Then he would have to lower them down to the RT in stages, using the rope and the knife-pitons.

David suddenly longed for the RT and its familiar interior. It was illogical to abandon their only sure refuge, which had equipment they needed – tools to repair Nine, in particular. But when David visualized descending into the crevasse, fear choked him. Get Nine away from this horrible place, his fear demanded. Or it will be his grave.

His fear was changing. Instead of draining his energy, it blazed through him with a call for action: he must go up. He forced his eyes open and tossed the spectagraph into the air.

The baseball-sized machine hummed into life and hovered overhead. Red light poured out of it, illuminating the crevasse like a circle of hell. It took an act of will for David to keep his eyes open to exploit the brief light. Silicone tears streamed across his face and flew off into the wind.

His sensors did not pick up the spectagraph's data. But David could at last see.

The ledge was ten meters in length and four meters in depth. With the limited equipment he had, there was only one way up, a single narrow place free of an overhang and with a slope a few degrees less than vertical.

With one hand, David positioned a knife-piton. He struck the handle with the flat of his other hand, driving the piton into the ice. Standing on one foot atop the first piton, he positioned the second, and drove it in. He looped the rope around the second piton, lowered himself to retrieve the first, then pulled himself up to the second piton, stood on it, and thrust the retrieved piton into the ice four feet above the piton he stood on.

It worked better than he had hoped, but he decided to try a different approach. He would dangle from one piton while he thrust in the free piton only half a meter above it. He would have to drive the knife-pitons in much more frequently, but it would ultimately be faster, since he would no longer have to lower himself to retrieve a knife-piton.

The spectagraph moved away and down into the crevasse; its light would soon be lost. David committed the route upward to memory and closed his eyes.

Now that David was resolved on a particular course of action, his mind had the leisure to discover new sources of fear.

By abandoning the RT, David had condemned himself to a worthless existence. Weyland Corp would not want a robot careless with its property. If Nine survived, Nine would be sent on the Prometheus mission with another robot, and David would not see Nine for five years, or never. Some robots, like Nine, traveled through the universe, discovering its terrible beauty. Some robots did not.

But I do not care what happens to me, David thought. As long as I save Nine. He jerked a knife-piton out of the ice, drove it back in again half a meter above, and moved up, as his fear center continued to whisper horrible things: once he was out of the crevasse, if he got out of the crevasse, how would he cross miles of broken ice, carrying Nine on his back, when he couldn't see or hear?

David stabbed the ice in front of him, and nearly fell when nothing stopped his motion; he had reached the top at last. There was an uneven ridge along the lip of the crevasse; he dragged himself and Nine over it.

When they were a safe distance from the edge of the crevasse, David stood up and oriented himself. His satlink was still not working, but the supply depot had an archaic radio beacon as a backup.

David picked up nothing, until he recalled his survival lessons. Radio operated on a wide bandwidth; each depot had its own narrow frequency. He had to search the entire bandwidth to locate the depot's beacon. After several panicky seconds, he located it.

His relief was short-lived; he faced another difficult decision. Should he take the ice highway, or cut a straight path to the depot? If he took the highway, his journey would be longer. He accessed a map stored in his memory; the depot was thirty-eight kilometers if he did not take the road, forty-four if he did. In Antarctica, six kilometers could make the difference between survival and destruction; he would head toward the depot in a straight line. He began the long trek, his eyes closed, the radio beacon the only thing he could "see," the weight of Nine on his back.

He stowed the knives, but soon had to retrieve them when he stumbled into a field of sastrugi. Each jagged tooth of ice varied from a few centimeters to two meters in height. Even in the 90 mph wind, and with Nine on his back, David was strong enough to leap over them, but he could not risk it; a crevasse could lie on the other side. Without his helmet and without a satlink, his suit sensors were providing raw digital data, a simple terrain map a meter wide and a meter deep. David had to move as if each step forward could be a plunge into a chasm, because each step could. The ice formations would have to be crossed slowly, with the help of the knife-pitons.

Before he tackled the sastrugi, David halted and lay Nine down, making sure the safety line between them was intact, and that the helmet he had put on Nine was still secure. He picked up Nine and continued on, fighting to overcome despair; the first two kilometers had taken an hour. He focused on the radio beacon and tried to tune out everything else.

But the radio signal was not enough distraction, so David thought back to the human explorers of a century earlier, from whom he had learned how to make rope crampons. Perhaps he could learn something more from their experience.

The two men, Fiennes and Stroud, had crossed the whole of Antarctica on foot, each pulling over 400 pounds on sledges, double the weight of what any overland explorer had attempted before. They had averaged fifteen miles a day for ninety days straight. Fiennes and Stroud had had the advantage of traveling during the polar summer, with 24 hour sunlight and warmer temperatures, but David now understood why the feat had never been repeated.

In Fiennes's and Stroud's journals, they had spent what had seemed to David an excessive amount of time on describing and coping with their emotional states. Now he knew why. In Antarctica, fear was as debilitating as the wind roaring in his ears, the ice striking his face, and the brutally uneven ground. As had happened to Fiennes and Stroud, David's fear chiefly took the form of paralyzing self-doubt: what if his systems were giving him false information about the supply depot beacon? What if he missed the depot completely, and continued on into nothingness? What if he could not repair Nine?

One foot in front of the other, Fiennes had written. Fiennes had penned the phrase with solemnity, as if it was great wisdom, not common sense. It had seemed banal when David had read it initially, because Fiennes had failed to fully convey the horror of continually moving forward when one was without hope, when one distrusted the evidence of one's senses, and when the constant internal refrain was You are doomed, give up now. In those circumstances, one foot in front of another was not common sense; it was an act of defiance so powerful it evolved into courage.

If he had not met Nine, David would not have understood the element of defiance. Without Nine, David might have gone to his crevasse grave without a murmur. He would not have fought his way out, and be still fighting to move forward, mile after mile. He would have had nothing to fight for.

He supposed he should take strength from his creator, Peter Weyland, who called the Davids his children, and his greatest invention. But Weyland's claim to have invented the David line was not strictly accurate. Sir Weyland had built the Davids aided by the accumulated knowledge of hundreds of human inventors. If David wished, he could regard all of humanity as his ancestors, including Fiennes and Stroud.

Fiennes and Stroud had drawn emotional strength from memories of their people's past successes. Like others of their time, they had believed space travel to be humanity's greatest accomplishment, because it was believed humans were the only life form in the universe to have left their planet of origin. Dr. Elizabeth Shaw's theories contradicted that, but her theories were still unproven.

But David had never considered space travel humanity's greatest glory; when humans went into space, they had modern instrumentation, and knew exactly where they were going. Instead, David believed humanity's greatest act of exploration had been their colonization of the South Pacific from a homeland in China. Five thousand years earlier, humans with Stone Age technology had packed up their families, domesticated plants and animals, and set sail into unknown waters. They had crossed the open sea and ultimately conquered 70 million square miles of the world's largest ocean.

All the humans had had was their skill as mariners, and a belief they would triumph. Humans do not resign as their opening move. Because of human perseverance, the Davids had come into existence.

The Antarctic explorer Stroud, to escape his fear-poisoned mind, had engaged in what he called mind traveling; Stroud had visualized each step of building a play house for his children. Similarly, Fiennes had focused on the fundraising aspect of their trek. For each kilometer the men traveled, donors had given money to a medical charity.

The play house gave David an idea; he could visualize the steps he would take to repair Nine. But within minutes, the train of thought turned toward despair. He did not know the full extent of the damage to Nine. The supply depot would not have the tools he needed, or the parts. David had to think about something else.

When the subject came to David, even the thought of it made his fear subside: the explorers of the South Pacific, specifically the people who had called their new home Hawaiʻi, and who were the direct descendents of the humans who had set out from China in pre-historic times.

Hundreds of years before the celebrated 600-mile voyage of the Vikings to Iceland, the Hawaiians had sailed at least 2,600 miles to reach their new home. Their master navigators held their encyclopedic knowledge in their memories, in the form of song.

David imagined being in their company as they set out. He imagined navigating warm seas by observing the stars in the sky. He imagined himself in an outrigger, floating in a vast ocean, with a precious cargo of domesticated plants beside him: breadfruit, taro, bamboo, yams, bananas, coconuts.

He stroked the Pacific with a paddle on his right, then his left. One foot in front of the other. He observed the shapes of clouds, and the colors of waves.

He sang a song of wayfinding, and then another, until he was free, no longer struggling across a frozen wasteland which threatened destruction at every turn, but in search of a new land lush with ferns, a place of safety for him and Nine.

Seventeen hours later, David's shortcut came to an end. He was back on the McMurdo-South Pole ice highway. According to the map he held in his mind, the depot was only three kilometers distant.

He was plodding forward when the snow below him gave way. He dropped down into the hole before he could halt his fall, lodging at mid-thigh because of Nine on his back.

His legs hung in empty space. He had partially fallen through a snow bridge. Below could be a crevasse of any depth.

David gripped the slick ice and tried to pull them free, but his gloved hands were ineffectual. He needed the knives, but they were in the collection case, which was jammed against the ice beside him. If he tried to pull the case free, he and Nine would slip further down. He would have to remove his gloves to get a grip on the ice.

He peeled his gloves off, forgetting to make sure they were still attached to his suit by a cord. The wind pulled the gloves out of his grasp, and they were gone.

Gripping the slippery ice with his bare hands, David began to pull them out of the hole. It would be easier and safer to free himself if he temporarily disconnected Nine, but the thought sent him into a panic. What if Nine fell through?

It took several painstaking minutes to free them. In the event they fell through the ice crust again, David took the knives out of the case and gripped them in his naked hands.

Less than two kilometers to the supply depot. One foot in front of the other. Their island drew near. One kilometer. Almost on the beach. Five hundred meters. David could smell sun on coconuts. Ten meters. One meter.

David's foot struck metal. They had crossed an ocean of ice, and reached the shore.