"Hey," Spencer said, opening the door. "Thanks for coming around, I know it's late."
"It's cool," Brendon said, because he felt that saying dude, when the mysterious guy from your organo-metallurgy class invites you over to look at his secret project, you don't say no might come across a little creepy. "What do you need?"
"It's – right, okay," Spencer said, letting Brendon in. Brendon tried not to stare too obviously at the shape in the centre of the room with a dust sheet covering it. "You know the final assignment for Watkin's class? I've been working on – well."
He shrugged his shoulders a little hopelessly and then crossed the room. He pulled osf the sheet with no theatrics, which Brendon appreciated – you'd think that well into the 24th century people would be over the mad cackling scientist thing, but apparently not – and then he stopped appreciating, and started gaping. It was a fully humanoid, titanium enforced robot, with real-looking synthetic skin and what looked like organic growths of hair on its head and the back of its arms, and sensory darts built into an intricate pattern that looked like tattoos on the underside of its wrists. Judging by the slight flicker in the robot's eyes even powered down, Brendon was guessing that they were the latest in electro-optic circuitry. Really, though, the only way he could tell it was a robot at all was through its unnatural stillness, and the open panel on the back of its neck.
"His name's Ryan," Spencer said.
"Um," Brendon said weakly. "I – what seems to be the problem?" A horrible thought occurred to him. "He hasn't gone evil, has he?"
"No," Spencer said. He sighed and typed in a code, then shut the open panel on the back of Ryan's neck, making it as though it had never been there. Ryan came to life, face flickering with tiny muscle tics, mouth opening and closing twice (Brendon was pretty sure his own mouth was hanging wide open).
"Ryan," Spencer said. "This is Brendon."
"P-p-pleased t-t-t-t-to m-meet you," Ryan said in a high, wavering voice, and behind him, Spencer made a hopeless face.
"Oh," Brendon breathed. "Your robot has a stutter. Spencer, that's adorable."
"Can you fix it?" Spencer asked. "I've tried everything, and you came top in that speech software class."
"I'll give it a go," Brendon said, and Spencer powered Ryan down again. "I need to see his voiceworks, if that's alright."
"I haven't sealed him all up yet, it's cool," Spencer said. With a soothing pat of Ryan's head, he carefully opened him up and extracted a green circuitry board. Brendon examined it carefully, holding it up in the light.
"Ah, yeah, I think I can fix it," he said. "Do you have a soldering kit? And some copper?" Spencer did, and Brendon spent twenty minutes bent over it, making minute adjustments. This was so much better than what he'd had planned for Friday night.
"Okay," he said finally. "Let's give it a try."
Spencer inserted the circuitry again, hooking up the wires with precision, and Brendon held his breath as Ryan's face came alive again.
"Am I fixed?" Ryan asked, and Brendon clapped a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing aloud. Ryan's voice was a perfect, drawling monotone.
Spencer met Brendon's eyes, mouth twitching. "Good enough," he said.
On Sunday, Brendon was delighted to look up from the nest of books and notes he'd scattered over the grass around him to see Spencer walking with a familiar spindly figure. Spencer was holding the robot's arm with one hand and a holo pad with the other, trying to take notes as they walked along. Ryan was stumbling and swaying all over the path, a tiny frown of concentration on his pale synthetic face.
Brendon waved an arm over his head. "Hey, Spencer! Spence!"
Spencer looked up, jerking Ryan's arm and making the robot lurch against him. He spotted Brendon and his face relaxed. Brendon watched, somewhat nonplussed, as they made their laborious way over to him.
"Dude," Brendon said. "Spence, what did you do to him? I swear he could walk the last time I saw him."
Spencer sighed, pushing a hand through his hair. "I was trying to tweak him so he'd be less gawky when he moved, but I've fucked up his centre of gravity or his sense of balance or something. I don't even know how, it's – ugh."
Ryan was looking at Brendon, the frown back as he leaned against Spencer's shoulder. Then he smiled, sudden and sweet. "I know you," he said. "You fixed my voice."
Brendon smiled back, a helpless tug. "Hi," he said. "Wow. I mean –" He cleared his throat. "I hope your voice has been okay?"
Ryan nodded. After a considered silence, he added, "I would like to be able to walk."
Brendon grinned up at Spencer. "Is that what –? No, seriously, dude, what are you two doing here?"
Ryan slipped sideways and Spencer jerked to catch him, sliding an arm around his waist. "I'm trying to work out how to fix him," Spencer said, a bit breathless. "I thought, the park, because I can observe him moving over uneven terrain, and maybe isolate the imbalance? But I kind of can't hold onto him and make notes at the same time – it's not really working."
Brendon sat up straighter. "Hey, let me help. I can hold his hand or whatever while you observe." He grinned. "We can promenade for you."
Spencer gave Brendon's strewn study materials a doubtful look. "Are you sure? You look kind of busy."
Brendon shrugged, trying to smile normally and not as though he'd been scheming for a way to hang out with Spencer and his robot some more for the last week straight. "It's cool," he said. "Really."
Brendon scrabbled for his books and notes, jamming them into his bag. It took a bit of manoeuvring to manage looping the bag over Spencer's far shoulder, then passing Ryan's weight over to Brendon, without any of the three of them falling over. Ryan stumbled against Brendon's side, his eyes wide and alarmed as he slipped sideways, and Brendon had to lunge to get behind him, catching cool sleeve-covered robot arms by the insides of his elbows. "Hey," Brendon said. "Woah. Hey. I got you."
"You sure?" Spencer looked anxious.
"No, really," Brendon said. He eased Ryan straight again, slipping an arm through the awkward crook of his elbow. "We're walking. We're good."
Ryan tilted his head up, giving Brendon that startlingly sweet smile from close quarters. "Thank you, Brendon," he said. Then he took an unnecessary but realistic breath and carefully put one foot in front of the other once more.
Brendon kept him steady, waving at Spencer, and thought, Best afternoon ever.
The plan was perfect, except maybe for how it was so complicated that Brendon had trouble remembering all of it. That was Spencer, though. There had been brainstorming sessions, and concept maps, and flow charts. Brendon felt that he knew more about colour coding than anyone else on the planet. Not that he was complaining: Spencer's decision to involve him in the plan had meant hours of hanging out with Spencer and Ryan, and that was quickly becoming Brendon's favourite pastime.
Brendon checked his watch. It was 6.27, which meant it was three minutes before his role in the plan kicked off at "eighteen hundred hours thirty on the dot", because Spencer was a freak who couldn't say half-six. Brendon would get in trouble if Spencer heard him referring to it as 'the plan', too. Spencer was very proud of Operation Assimilation.
It was all, Brendon reflected, a lot of bother for what was essentially Ryan's first trip to the local coffee house.
At 6.29 precisely, a glitch in Spencer's perfectly prepared plan (oh, Brendon thought mournfully, Spencer was going to be so mad) sat down next to Brendon and grinned at him. "Hi, Bden," Jon Walker said. "How's it going?"
Brendon blinked at him. Jon was pretty much the coolest post-grad radio technician on campus, and he had talked to Brendon when Brendon was alone and missing his family and a little overwhelmed by the workload, and Brendon would be forever grateful, he would, but also: Spencer was going to be so mad. The involvement of an outsider in the plan wasn't going to be appreciated one bit.
"Hi, Jon," he said, trying not to sound rude. "I'm alright. Aren't you meant to be working tonight?"
"Just finished my shift," Jon said, pointing a thumb to where someone else had replaced him behind the counter. "Thought I'd hang around a bit longer, though. Tom's got a new girlfriend," he explained, rolling his eyes.
"Right," Brendon said nervously. "Well –"
Too late. The door slid open with a quiet humming sound and Ryan and Spencer stepped through. Ryan looked delighted and curious, and Spencer was smiling slightly. Brendon hoped the mood would last. He waved at them and sunk lower in his own seat as they made their way over.
"Um," Brendon said, when they took their seats at the other side of the table. "Jon, this is Spencer and Ryan. Spencer and Ryan, Jon."
"Hi," Jon said, smiling warmly. Brendon risked a glance upward and then stared in disbelief, because Spencer didn't look angry at all. His lips were slightly parted instead, and there was a faint blush colouring his cheeks.
"Hi, Jon," he said, eyes fixed on Jon's face.
"Hello," Ryan said. His voice was even flatter than usual, and Brendon looked at him and then froze. Any light and warmth in Ryan's eyes was gone, and they seemed to have shuttered closed in a way that Brendon was sure Spencer hadn't programmed them to do. The result was a look of cool dislike trained on Jon.
"Um," Jon said, looking a little uncomfortable. "I hope you don't mind me intruding. Brendon's an old friend." He slung a warm arm around Brendon's shoulders, and Brendon leaned into it instinctively. Across the table, Ryan's eyes narrowed.
"In one touch," Ryan said, "a human can pass on several million bacteria, of countless varieties and species."
The three of them stared at him. "Oh," Jon said, and gingerly withdrew his arm. Ryan's expression of blank disdain did not fade.
"You are not sufficiently sterile," Ryan said, standing up. "We will switch places."
Jon blinked. "So I can infect Spencer?" he asked. Ryan looked haughty.
"Spencer has a higher tolerance to germ warfare than Brendon," Ryan said. "Switch."
As Jon stood up and the two shuffled around each other, Spencer leaned across the table and hissed, "What's going on? Ryan's responses to friendly overtures are supposed to be pleasant and forthcoming!"
Brendon shook his head helplessly. "I guess Jon broke him," he said.
Ryan settled in comfortably next to him, and leaned up close against his side, their wrists brushing under the table. "Hi," he said, and when Brendon looked at him he smiled, that unexpected sweet one.
"Hi," Brendon said, bewildered. Ryan kept smiling.
Brendon wasn't even aware of the danger until it had happened.
He was leaning against Spencer's shoulder, laughing as Jon attempted to charm Ryan, at the counter. Spencer was experimenting with getting Ryan to venture out on his own more, and talk to people without Spencer being there; he said Ryan would be ready to make visits and easy trips entirely on his own soon.
Jon had been attempting to charm Ryan for a week now, and Brendon was pretty sure that Ryan was thawing. He still froze up about the strangest things, like Jon drawing a ninja turtle on Brendon's coffee cup, or Brendon mentioning the way that Jon had helped him get to his first class when he got lost in the upper walkways – but he also quirked his mouth whenever Jon mentioned one of his cats, and yesterday he'd given Spencer a fond and very human eye-roll when Spencer stuttered over Jon's name.
Jon was obviously feeling encouraged this morning. He was grinning, his eyes crinkled up, teasing Ryan about something while he made coffee. Ryan looked uncertain but not, Brendon thought, annoyed. He was ducking his head to look at his fingerless gloves and then back up at Jon, every time Jon said something. It was sort of ridiculously charming. Jon finished the drink he was making and pushed it over to Ryan, crinkling his eyes in a smile again as he spoke.
Spencer stiffened against Brendon. "No –" he said, halfway to his feet. Ryan had already taken a sip.
Brendon felt as though everything happened too slowly to be real. Ryan's face changed, whitening, and his eyes went wide. Jon's smile disappeared and he opened his mouth to speak. Spencer was halfway across the coffee house. Brendon had risen partway out of his seat.
Ryan crumpled, a graceless tangle of limbs toppling to the floor.
"Shit," Jon said, suddenly loud in the stillness, and Brendon started into motion again.
"He's lactose intolerant," Spencer was saying, bent over Ryan and patting his cheeks.
"I made it black," Jon said, sounding lost.
"Then he's allergic to hot beverages, what the fuck, Jon, you're not helping," Spencer said. "Shit. Ryan. Recite the periodic table, Ryan. What comes after radium?"
Brendon dropped to his knees beside them. Ryan's eyes were fluttering, his throat spasming around strange, broken sounds. His hands by his sides were twitching, half lifting and dropping back to the floor. His eyes were wide and unfocused.
"I need – shit, I need –" Spencer got to his feet, fumbling his holo pad out of his pocket. "I made notes for this, I know I did, it – it was in the plan – Brendon, what item was it in the plan?"
Brendon shook his head. He didn't remember. He stared down at Ryan. This was fixable, he knew; Spencer was a fantastic designer and technician, and he planned for everything. He would fix this, as soon as he could get Ryan home.
It was fixable, but right now Ryan was breaking Brendon's heart.
Brendon lifted Ryan's head, carefully easing it into his lap. Ryan's eyes flew to Brendon's face, his lashes fluttering as he attempted to focus. Brendon petted his hair, trying to make the squeezing in his own chest go away. He couldn't remember when Ryan had changed from the awesome gadget Spencer had created to a friend Brendon couldn't make himself imagine losing.
"You're okay," Brendon said. His voice came out hoarse and shaky, and he cleared his throat. He took one of Ryan's hands, pressing against his fingers to stop the shaking, and stroked the hair out of Ryan's eyes again. "You're fine, Ryan. I'll help Spencer fix this." He lifted Ryan's hand, pressing it against his own cheek. "You're going to be fine."
Ryan had been making increasingly frantic gestures at Brendon from the window for close to an hour now, and amusing as it was to watch, Brendon had a feeling that if he delayed any longer he was going to have a really annoyed robot on his hands. Besides, he wasn't quite over the scare earlier this week, the panic that had clawed its way into his throat and sat there, stubborn and unmoving, long after Spencer had worked out how to fix Ryan.
Brendon snapped shut the silver compact, the text that had been scrolling through the air in front of him cutting off abruptly, and shoved it into his bag. He sidled his way past the other students and out of the library, to where Ryan was waiting with his face pressed up against the window. Ryan turned and smiled a little nervously at Brendon, face still anxious, and Brendon felt his heart speed up. If something was genuinely wrong, and Brendon had been ignoring Ryan for his own amusement –
"What's up?" he asked, and Ryan nudged at him until they were walking together, down the steps and into the evening.
"I'm not sure, exactly," Ryan said. "Can I come 'round to your place for a while? Please?"
"Sure," Brendon said. He bit his lip, and led the way. His little room wasn't nearly as good as Spencer's, which was an apartment off campus, or the apartment Jon shared with a bunch of his musician buddies, but it was on campus and he didn't have a roommate, so it would do. He kind of wished that he hadn't picked "Bden rules" as his vocal identification code, but Ryan didn't appear to notice, too busy gazing around with wide eyes.
Brendon closed the door behind them. "So what's wrong?" he asked, climbing up on one of the huge cushions hovering in the air and pulling Ryan up after him.
Ryan twisted his hands in his lap. "I think I'm still broken," he mumbled, and Brendon drew in a sharp breath. "From the... beverage. I think – I feel funny."
"Have you told Spencer?" Brendon asked, that miserable panic back again.
Ryan shook his head. "He was so worried," he said. "And he only just stopped being upset, and only because Jon asked him – out?" Brendon nodded once in confirmation. Ryan's handle on idiom was still a little shaky, and he hadn't quite understood the concept, wanting to know out where. "I didn't want to ruin their first date," Ryan finished.
"Okay," Brendon said, turning slightly so that they were face to face. "So how are you feeling funny? What exactly?"
"Something in my chest," Ryan told him. "It feels like – like the machinery isn't working properly, like it's uneven, or going too fast or something." Brendon put his hand on Ryan's chest and felt the mechanical heartbeat speed up. Ryan nodded. "Like that," he mumbled.
"When does it happen?" Brendon asked. "A lot? Does it make the rest of you stop working?"
"I get clumsier," Ryan said, and shrugged. "But it doesn't really do much. It just feels weird. And – and it happens a lot. But mostly around – well, at first I thought it was Jon and it was some sort of stupid danger signal, like a learned response, but it happens when he's not around, too." He drew in a breath (it didn't look unnecessary for a moment, and Brendon thought in a quick, vicious chant, robot robot robot). "Mostly," Ryan said. "Mostly it happens around you."
Brendon blinked at him. A slow flush spread over Ryan's cheeks.
"Oh, yeah," Ryan said, eyes fixed on Brendon's face. "That's happening more, too. My circuits overheating, or something."
Brendon swallowed, and reached out a finger to brush over Ryan's cheek. His skin was warm to the touch, and Brendon gradually brought the rest of his hand up, smoothed it over Ryan's cheek, cupped his jaw. Ryan stared at him.
"My heart," Ryan whispered, and Brendon pressed his free hand to Ryan's chest, felt it beating wildly under his touch. Ryan's face was very close; Brendon bit down the urge to laugh hysterically, thought, what am I doing, and then decided to worry about it later. He leaned in and Ryan stumbled for a moment over some noise before closing his eyes and lifting his face up. Beneath his hand, the mechanics of Ryan's heart stirred and shifted gear, keeping time with Brendon's own.