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Perfectly Natural

Chapter Text

One

 

When Will could finally touch himself in peace and privacy, Proxima Centauri B began to feel like home. There'd been a few moments aboard the Jupiter, when they were trapped on the water planet or docked on the Resolute, that he could take a few minutes to find a scrap of relaxation, but not often. It hadn't been often at all when they weren't running from one crisis to another, coming to the brink of death again and again. 

 

Then they arrived, they were assigned a home, a bedroom, a bed… and Will had privacy for the first time since they left the Resolute with a Jupiter full of nearly a hundred other kids. 

 

Arm cocked beneath his head, he lay back in his new pyjamas and his new blankets. He stared up at his new ceiling and the unfamiliar geometry of the shadows from the faint artificial light filtering through his window. Sleepily, he ran through some mental calculations to estimate the angles of those new shapes of light. He lightly stroked his belly as he pondered, summoning goosebumps to prickle on his abdomen and chest. Once he was good and sensitive, he gently scratched the backs of his nails from hip to hip, circled his navel, and then let his hand stray lower, under his stretchy waistband to his slowly swelling flesh. 

 

Finally.  

 

Then a pressure in the back of his mind announced that he wasn't as alone as he'd thought. 

 

Will froze with fingers wrapped around himself, equal parts surprised, embarrassed, and annoyed. Really? he thought with heat. Now?

 

He received a sensation of curiosity, an afterimage of swirling stars, a flash of a plain white room. The Robot equivalent of What are you doing? I'm bored. 

 

Will couldn't hold onto his annoyance. He never could with Robot, his dearest friend. He debated stopping and just going to sleep now that he had an audience, but it was probably something he'd have to get used to. Robot may have eavesdropped on him before without him knowing it, anyway, during their time apart. 

 

Besides, his dad said it was a perfectly natural act, nothing to be embarrassed about, just to do it in private and go talk to him again if he ever felt like doing it with someone else. Assuredly because there would be additional rules. 

 

Does this count? Will wondered. His hand began to move again, a light, three-fingered touch moving down his length. He snickered to himself as he imagined how that conversation would go. "Dad, I masturbated while telepathically linked to Robot. Is that perfectly natural?"

 

As he continued, the tension eased from his neck, shoulders, and heart. He hadn't realized he'd been holding so much until he melted into his clean, new mattress. Home. Safety. Family. Robot. All was well. 

 

He released a shuddering breath. They'd come so close to losing everything. Everyone. But, there they were, on Proxima Centauri B. Together.

 

He didn't know if words translated across his link to Robot, but he tried, anyway. I'm glad you're here. With the thought, he tried to send all the affection he felt toward Robot; his trust, gratitude, relief, care. Whatever challenges awaited on their new world, they would face them together. 

 

Robot returned the sentiment with something that felt like warmth. His warmth joined the heat building in Will's belly and thighs and oozing through his veins. Did Robot ever do anything like this? Was there a special way Robot could touch himself to feel good? Was it as private as this, as personal?

 

That thought transformed Will's relaxation into Will's growing tension. He imagined Robot's huge, gentle hands moving over his sculpted metal plates and elusive etchings, perhaps finding some secret, hidden node of sensors that responded strongly to touch.

 

Will's hips jerked, startling him with the intensity of the sensation. It had been a while since he'd done this; maybe it was another symptom of growing up. Instead of relaxing, he was getting excited, heated, his abdominal muscles contracting with every rhythmic pull. He gripped himself harder, almost squeezing, and stifled a groan with the back of his wrist. If anyone else heard him, it would be beyond embarrassing, normal or not. But he couldn't stop himself from continuing, harder and faster, not even when he felt wetness coating his skin, or when the weight of Robot's presence became heavy, palpable, as though he was right there with Will, his lights swarming behind Will's tightly closed eyes. 

 

Molten pleasure pooled between his legs, tugged tight at all the strings holding him together, and then released him in a minor explosion. He uttered a choked moan and hot liquid splashed up his stomach and over his fist. 

 

He sagged back against his pillow, took a few heaving breaths, and looked down at himself. Oh. Gross.  

 

His father's voice returned to him. "One day, Will, you're going to ejaculate. It's perfectly normal."

 

Does this seem normal to you? he wondered in Robot's direction. You must think we're a very strange species. One day, he was going to find out Robot was a xenobiologist and was hanging out with Will out of professional curiosity. 

 

The absurd thought made Will chuckle. With heavy limbs, he awkwardly rolled and got up to find some dirty laundry to wipe himself off. Then, tired and satisfied, he returned to his not-so-clean sheets. 

 

Goodnight, Robot. As Will tired, their connection became less distinctive, easing off into a vague sense of comfort.

 

He stared at the geometry problem on his ceiling, and sank into sleep before he'd solved a single angle.

Chapter Text

Two

 

Robot owned his own house. Technically, he and Scarecrow owned it, but Scarecrow had vanished into the wilds of Proxima Centauri shortly after landing, understandably shunning the humans and making Command extremely nervous. If Robot hadn't assured him that Scarecrow was well and occasionally even responding to communications, Will would have been nervous as well. 

 

Will grinned broadly when he hopped up on Robot's well-lit step and pressed the buzzer by the door. There he was, visiting his friend and neighbor. 

 

When Will had discovered that the Robinson house didn't have room for another occupant and his mother suggested Robot and Scarecrow share their own house, he'd been upset that they wouldn't be close. But the idea had grown on him. It was proof of the robots' status as sentient beings and members of the community. They were not slaves, pets, or tools. They were equal, and therefore had equal rights to housing. 

 

The door slid open, revealing Robot’s towering, eight-foot frame and blue-white galaxy of stars. His size, dark colour, and scars of battle juxtaposed against the small, clean white entryway behind him, and Will laughed. 

 

At the curious swirl of lights, he explained, "I'm just imagining you on Earth right now. Everything here is so… normal. And you're so… you." He stepped in for a hug, reaching up to wrap his arms around Robot's shoulders and relaxing when Robot embraced him in turn. He still held a fear--deeply embedded in the pit of his belly--that one day Robot would disappear again, or forget who he was, or decide that he didn't like Will all that much after all.

 

Robot's hands flexed, one in the small of Will's back and the other on his shoulder, as though reminding Will that he was there and there to stay. 

 

Will pulled away first, clearing a suspicious roughness from his throat, and peered past Robot's waist. "How was your first night in your new house? Have you ever had a house before? … What do your people live in?" Will was momentarily distracted, trying to imagine an army of angry battle mode robots in some kind of dormitory full of bunk beds.

 

Robot thudded backward and turned, gesturing with long fingers for Will to follow. 

 

The living room seemed normal enough, almost identical to the Robinsons’; the grey couch, chair, and espresso coffee table looked untouched. The screen in the wall by the door played an Earth documentary, the sound barely audible. In the kitchen beyond a low partition, Will was entertained to see a neatly disassembled toaster on the table. 

 

Robot led him through a narrow, scratched up hall to the bedrooms. In the first, Robot had apparently stacked all of the furniture from the other bedroom. Will again had to laugh at the sight of the beds and dressers in a tidy pile. 

 

The large master bedroom was emptied of furniture, and the walls…

 

"Is that ketchup?" Will asked. He sniffed one of Robot's drawings and snickered at the familiar sweet and sour smell of synthetic ketchup. "Yep." His amusement faded quickly, replaced with admiration. "These are really good." He wandered the perimeter of the room and examined each painting, recognizing scenes from the past two years. "Maybe you can illustrate Penny's book?" The paintings had become more detailed since the two circles of Robot's first drawing, now with some textures, some shading. Will could tell that Robot was learning, expanding his skills. "You know, we can probably find someone in the colony who can teach you more about art. I mean, it'll just be human art, but it'll be a start--" He cut off as he arrived at Robot's last painting. "Um. Is… is that…?" Heat blossomed in his cheeks. 

 

The little stick figure was quite obviously touching itself. 

 

Robot loomed beside him and nudged his sternum with a gentle knuckle. As though Will actually needed an answer. 

 

Will resisted the urge to cover his face. If he freaked out, he'd just make things worse. 

 

So he cleared his throat and carefully said, "I like when you draw me. But, uh, that's a… a private moment. It's, you know, perfectly natural. But it's something for me. Privately. Alone."

 

Robot seemed to be examining him. Will felt himself blushing furiously and wished he could stop. What kind of human ambassador would he make if he couldn't even talk about a basic biological function?

 

Without lifting his attention from Will, Robot reached out and clawed six deep gouges in the wall, obliterating the picture and a square foot of factory printed resin. 

 

Will winced. "Oh, Robot, it's okay." He laid a hand on Robot's arm. "I don't mind." Smiling, he tried to tug Robot toward the door. "Come on. Mom and Dad are in meetings all day, so the rest of us are going to explore the colony. Don says there's already stores and stuff. Maybe someone will sell you some canvas, or paint, or paper. Something, anyway. So you don't run out of walls."

 

For a beat, Robot seemed to be processing something. Then he followed. 

 

Proxima Centauri B’s dusty, slightly bitter air welcomed them outside. Will drew in a deep breath and stretched. The purple sky was clear, the air balmy where they lived along the equatorial belt. Their new sun, Proxima Centauri, glowed orange near the horizon; it would crawl across the sky for the next twenty-two hours, without making the day any brighter. Proxima Centauri B existed in a state of perpetual dusk, warmed more by the radiation hitting the upper atmosphere than by the light radiation more typical of a star like Sol. Alpha Centauri’s other two stars, Rigil and Toliman, shone like a pair of eyes on the other side of the horizon. Over the course of the 11 day evolution around Proxima, those stars would make their way into and out of alignment with Proxima.

 

"Are you going to lock your door?" Will asked when Robot joined him on the step and the door hissed shut behind him. Robot looked at him, looked at the door, and then looked at the street of identical houses. Will shrugged. "I don't think anyone will go in or take your things, but isn't it great to know that this is your house, and you decide who gets to come in?"

 

A pulsing ring of happy lights demonstrated Robot's agreement, and he locked his door with a careful claw. 

 

As they walked back to the Robinsons’ home a mere twenty meters away, Will rambled about everything he'd learned about Alpha Centauri since they'd arrived in orbit and went through the quarantine and placement process. "Look at your lawn--did you ever think you'd have a lawn? Do you know what a lawn is?-- Anyway, all the plant life here is black because the plants evolved photosynthesis that takes advantage of all wavelengths, because there’s so little light.” He plucked a blade of Robot’s grass, finding it much fleshier than the grass on Earth. Likely they were very different, and only appeared superficially similar. “On Earth the grass is green."

 

Robot kept pace beside him--not behind, not ahead--and listened. Will didn't know if he was actually interested or just polite, but he appreciated it all the same. Being able to talk about anything and everything felt refreshingly normal after years of conversations dominated by crises and desperate searching for solutions. 

 

The Robinson house looked nearly identical to Robot's; the same concrete step up to the same sliding orange and steel door, the same bay window under a white awning, the same beige walls printed from a mixture of gypsum and local resins.

 

"Do you want to see my room?" he asked when they entered the house, as though he'd invited a school friend over for the first time. Then he realized what he'd just said. "I mean, it's almost exactly the same as yours. Just with, like, half the furniture."

 

More of those pulsing rings that Will understood to be happiness. 

 

"Okay," he breathed.

 

When they'd been in orbit around the planet, he'd been afraid that Robot would decide to stay in space, either piloting ships full of humans or being free to travel at will. When he'd agreed to join the colony, Will had felt almost dizzy with happiness. Then he'd worried that Robot would get bored once they were absorbed into the colony. That Robot might grow bored of him . Knowing that he was happy to be part of Will's normal, boring life, and not just part of the adventures, brought that dizziness back. 

 

The door across from Will's opened as they passed, revealing Penny's ruddy, sleep-soft face and tangled hair. "'Morning, big guy," she said, cracking a yawn. "How's the new house?"

 

"He's redecorating," Will told her. "He's getting really good at painting. I think I want him to do my room."

 

"Oh, sign me up. All this white and beige is driving me crazy." She shuffled away from them toward the bathroom.

 

"Now we really need to find you some paint," Will said, knocking on Robot's chest. "You're already in demand." He backed into his own door to open it. "And here we are. My room. And my one personal item." He gestured at the shelf over his bed and a lone rock from the planet where they'd met. 

 

Robot investigated as Will flopped back on his unmade bed. Again, Will's new "normal" made him direct a giddy grin at the ceiling. That house was home, and it was terribly boring, but it was theirs, and Robot was there, gently opening and closing the drawers and snooping in the closet as though the colony-issued uniforms within held some deep fascination.

 

Then Robot appeared in Will's peripheral vision, a clump of dirty white tshirt dangling from a claw, Robot's expression all curious spirals.

 

Will squawked and leapt to his feet. "Where did you find that?!" Once again, his face heated with a no doubt bright red blush. He snatched it back and threw it into his closet. "That's--" he started, strangled and not sure what to say. 

 

"Private," Robot said, low-voiced.

 

" Yes !"

 

Robot didn't laugh, but the little bursts of rings certainly gave that impression. 

 

Will held up a warning finger. "I may not be able to tease you about anything now, but one day…"

 

If anything, those bursts only increased in speed and frequency. 

 

"Hey, you two." Judy poked her head in the doorway, still damp from the shower and combing her hair. "Good morning, Robot. Are you happy with your new house?" When he nodded, she directed her intent gaze at Will. "You already have breakfast, Will? We're going to head out soon."

 

"Oh, no, I went to check on Robot first thing. I'll go grab something."

 

Robot nudged him in the back on his way out the door, as though chiding him for negligence. 

 

"Don told us that they've started up an agricultural industry here already," Will chatted as he led Robot to the kitchen. "But carefully. They're not going to make the same mistakes they made on Earth. Anyway, with the grow labs they have now, we don't really need to rely on agriculture to fulfill our nutritional requirements. I think it's more as a luxury." Will pulled a soy-based sandwich out of the fridge and pried off the compostable packaging. "I just hope no one takes that too far, you know? Anyway, maybe we'll see some real vegetables or meat." 

 

Will considered Robot as he ate, a little concerned about Robot's reaction when he inevitably discovered that humans consumed other animals. It had been bad enough when Robot learned that humans domesticated and used horses for transportation. 

 

I could be a vegetarian , Will decided.

 

"All set?" Judy asked. She leaned against a counter, tying up her hair. Penny arrived a moment later, also twisting up her little buns. "Don's going to be here any minute to give us the tour."

 

"I bet he doesn't give this tour to just anyone," Penny observed slyly.

 

Judy smirked right back. "Yeah, ever since he saved your life, he's been really close to us--"

 

"That's not what I meant!" Penny exclaimed, turning red. 

 

Will and Judy laughed, and the buzzer went. 

 

"Hey, Robinsons," Don said when they poured out of the house, his ready smile taking turns beaming at each of them--including Robot, Will noticed with pleasure. Being around Don was a pleasure in itself, Will had to admit. He was just so awesome : funny, brave, good at his job, nice to look at--

 

Will froze on the step, startled by the turn of his thoughts. What was going on in his head?

 

Robot nudged him and he stumbled after the others. 

 

The day continued, purple and orange, artificial lights shining like small suns on every house. A warm breeze played with Will’s hair, reminding him that they were finally free of living on fragile ships lost in the darkness of space.

 

"The original colony was mostly subterranean," Don explained as they walked the peaceful street. "Then they figured out how to print these houses on an industrial scale and here we are: a little piece of Centauri suburbia." 

 

"I was expecting something a little more alien," Penny admitted. "This is just Earth through purple sunglasses."

 

"It gets weirder the longer you stick around." Don cast her that brilliant smile, white teeth flashing against his dark scruff. "Don't worry. My favourite family will get their fill of adventure here."

 

"No," chorused the four Robinsons, Robot's voice a low counterpart to the tones of the others. 

 

Don laughed. "Maybe not for a while, but I know what you guys are like. It's only a matter of time before Don West will have to swoop in and save the day. Again."

 

"Oh, my hero," Penny drawled, linking an arm with his.

 

"Robot," said Robot.

 

"Robot's right." Will mimicked Penny's gesture, grabbing Robot's arm. "He's saved us way more times."

 

"If I'd known it was a competition, I would've brought my A game." Don walked backwards to point at Robot. "You're going down, Robot. It is on ."

 

"Is anyone going to mention that we're more than capable of saving ourselves?" Judy asked. "And others, I might add."

 

It was okay to laugh, now that the danger was over. 

 

They reached a main street, busy with foot traffic and small, solar-powered vehicles. The identical houses gave way to squat, metallic buildings.

 

"Supply depot," Don pointed. "Fully automated. It dispenses colony-issued things: clothes, tools, tofu. All printed and recyclable. School's over there." Another ugly building, but with more windows and a fence covered in large, painted flowers.

 

"Sorry, Will." Penny smirked over her shoulder. "There's your prison for the next four years."

 

"Will likes school," Judy reminded her. "And you'll be there, too, if you don't pass your exams."

 

"Ugh. And if I didn't have motivation before, I sure do now." She eyeballed the building as they strode past. 

 

"It doesn't look that bad to me," Will muttered to Robot. "Only the best came to Alpha Centauri, and that means the best teachers."

 

"And the best students." Judy lifted an eyebrow at him. "You might have some competition here."

 

"Hey, Will isn't the over achiever here," Penny interjected before Will could come up with a response. "He's comfortably smart. Smart without making other people feel stupid."

 

"I don't make other people feel stupid," Judy protested.

 

Penny's grin sharpened. "I didn't say I was talking about you, Jude. Thank you for proving my point."

 

Judy made the frustrated noise that only her younger sister's needling could illicit, and Penny smugly resumed striding next to Don.

 

Don pointed out a few other buildings and other suburbs. He waved at a few people--maybe other retired mechanics or former customers--and once he fell back to walk between Robot and Will, cursing to himself and ducking his head as though to escape notice. 

 

He needn't have bothered. They all went unnoticed when they were traveling with Robot. Other colonists stopped on the street to watch them pass. Whispers followed them. They all knew who Robot was, of course. Communications had gone out while they were orbiting the planet in quarantine, but with only limited information. They knew Robot was an ally, instrumental in brokering the tentative truce between his species--or a faction of them--and the humans, and allowing humans to continue using borrowed engines and ships to shuttle their population to safety. Despite all he'd done to help the colony, though, there was still a thread of fear in those whispers. Robot in real life was far different from Robot in community announcements, especially when half of the details were confidential.

 

Will stuck close to his side, and played the banter game with his sisters. This is normal , he wanted to show. This is our new normal, and it's good. 

 

"Here's the colony hub," Don said after several minutes of steady walking. Will wasn't tired, but he'd started to sweat in the warmth. "You've got your science buildings, administration, hospital, law. Blah, blah, blah." The buildings he pointed out were taller, but still constructed in the typical colony fashion. "All the interesting stuff is underground. Those old dwellings have been converted and there's some nice little shops and restaurants."

 

"Sounds great," Penny huffed. Red tendrils of loose hair stuck to her forehead. "Starting to get hot.”

 

"Just in time, as usual." Don led them to one of the hundreds of sliding doors they'd seen. A sign above it read:

 

Market

  1. Entrance

 

It opened without a code and cool, recycled air gusted over them. They entered a bright atrium lit by the ubiquitous white light. Several doors led off it, a set of stairs went up, another went down. The smell of something cooking wafted up, and Will groaned. They hadn't eaten cooked anything since the water planet.

 

"Right?" said Don. He started trotting down the stairs, and then paused. "These going to be a problem for Double-R?" 

 

"Double-R?" Penny echoed. 

 

Don rubbed the back of his head. "Robot Robinson?"

 

"That's so lame that it's cute." Penny grinned up at Robot. "Hey, there, Double-R."

 

"Robot," said Robot. He started down the stairs without hesitation. His feet, usually large and solid like human boots, separated into a splay of metal appendages that gripped each step. 

 

"Woah," Don whispered, letting him pass. 

 

"I don't think he likes it," Penny said, hurrying after.

 

"Maybe just 'Arr'?" Don's voice echoed down. "Like a pirate? How about… Rob-Rob?"

 

The stairs ended at a corridor, and Will and Robot paused to take it in. Doors lined the corridor, many of them opening into cramped shops. Little racks of items and glowing signs declared what each carried. Most of the colony seemed to be there already, clogging the corridor, wandering from shop to shop, leaning against the walls and chatting.

 

"Oh. My. God. I haven't been shopping in forever ." Penny shook Judy's shoulder. "Can you believe this? Look at what everyone's wearing! Real clothes. "

 

Maybe one other person wore anything standard issue. The rest flaunted bright colours, designs, cuts, and more skin than Will was used to seeing.

 

"It's nice, hey?" Don pushed past them. "C'mon. I'll introduce you to everyone who's going to swindle you."

 

They took a few steps into the market, and a wave of silence moved before them as the crowded shoppers realized who had just entered their midst. Those closest, who hadn't had a chance to escape, pressed against the walls as Robot stomped past them, their faces grey over their bright clothes. The others bled away into the shops and other corridors. 

 

They'll get used to him, Will assured himself. Once he buys a few things, they'll figure out that he's just like everyone else. Only bigger and way more awesome. 

 

"Don't go in there unless you don't like your credits," Don rambled as he sauntered along, not seeming to notice how his voice suddenly echoed. "Here's some real handmade stuff. Over there is just a guy who can get a printer to do tricks. Oh, here we go. Let's get something to eat, and then you can let loose."

 

They came to a cross corridor full of fragrant aromas. Will's stomach rolled around. After months of tasteless nutrition, his body didn't even know what to think of actual food smells.

 

"Most of these places try and emulate an Earth ethnicity, but one or two are all Centauri."

 

"Are those hot dogs?!" Penny exclaimed, taking off toward a sign.

 

Don laughed. "All right, how about we meet back here in thirty minutes? You guys have some credits, right?"

 

"Yeah, we got them from the colony admin," Judy said. 

 

"That's great. When those run out you're going to have to start trading at the Exchange. Or doing favours for friends." Don shook his head. "Do not recommend."

 

"Do we have to get jobs or something?" Will asked.

 

Don laughed. "Kid, this whole place is one big job. But no. I mean yes. You'll get assigned a job as part of the colony, but you won't get paid. To get actual money you'll need a side business."

 

"Don," Judy chided. "It's not exactly like that. The colony provides for all our needs, but we all need to work together for it to succeed."

 

"Everything else is just on top of that," Will surmised.

 

"Exactly. That's why most of these shops are only open one or two days a week. These folks all have day jobs. Hey, this place is good. Real Centauri cuisine." Don waved them toward a doorway under a sign that read, in glowing pink, The Centaurian.

 

"Thanks, Don." Judy offered one of her rare, genuine smiles. "Thanks for, you know, everything."

 

"My pleasure."

 

Will, sensing a moment between them, entered the shop to give them some space, Robot thudding steadily behind him. 

 

The Centaurian looked much as Will had expected: a former house with a few walls removed. Printed tables and chairs filled the space, Proxima landscapes dominated the walls, a few vases of white native flowers brightened the corners. A handful of customers gaped at them from their tables, apparently paralyzed. Will tried to avoid their stares and hurried to the counter at the back of the room. 

 

"Hello?" he called nervously, peering into the kitchen beyond. It was mostly blocked by a wall, though he could see the corner of a cooking range. 

 

"Oh, sorry. I--" A woman rounded the corner, wiping her hands on a towel, and froze when she caught sight of her customers. Her gaze crawled up to Robot's face, remained fixed there for an awkward length of time, and then traveled over his shoulders and chest before finally coming to rest on Will's pained smile. "Oh," she breathed.

 

"We, uh, we were told the food here is good?" Will said. Surely, if he could fight his way across the galaxy, he could order some lunch. "I'd like to buy something?"

 

"Yes," the woman said faintly. "Of course." Staying well back, she slowly reached out and gingerly pulled two laminated cards from a holder on the counter. She slid them across to Will. "The lunch specials. You can sit anywhere."

 

Will barely had a chance to nod his thanks before she disappeared. 

 

Will passed one of the cards to Robot, who held it in a stretched palm. "See anything you like?" he asked, amused.

 

Robot answered with an intent stare and Will's nervousness disappeared under a little throb of warmth. 

 

The shop had cleared out while they'd spoken with the woman, so Will chose a large table by his favourite painting: an image of the Alpha Centauri system from space, with the fiery, dark orange dwarf Proxima Centauri in the foreground and their new home planet just a dark sphere in the corner. That sight had triggered such a rush of relief when Will first saw it that even the reminder made him weak in the knees. He collapsed into his chair, grateful, and focused on his menu. 

 

"Sometimes I wish I could take you to Earth," Will said after a moment. "I'd take you to all my favourite restaurants and places." He hung his head backward over his chair to smile upside down at Robot's lights. "I guess we'll just have to find some favourite places here."

 

"Not too busy today, is it?" Don commented dryly when he finally entered. He swaggered to the counter and helped himself to menus for himself and Judy. "Hey, Minnie. How's it going?"

 

The woman from before peeked around the corner and sagged visibly. "Don, hey, you're, uh, you're with…?"

 

"Yeah. These are Judy, Will, and Robot Robinson. They haven't had real food in months. You're going to blow their minds."

 

"Oh, yes. Yes I will." She tittered and finally emerged from the kitchen. "Do you know what you'd like to order?"

 

Will, thinking of his earlier decision, ordered some kind of roasted vegetable thing. Don got meat wrapped in meat. Judy's order was a balance between the two. Don ordered a round of drinks for them all, swearing that if they didn’t try the Centaurian cola, they weren’t truly living.

 

"Does he ever eat anything?" Don asked, nodding at Robot where he was examining a painting of a navy blue forested hillside. 

 

Will shrugged and called, "Robot, what do you eat?"

 

Without looking away from the painting, Robot held up an arm and pointed at one of his runes.

 

"Ah. Lightning."

 

Don spat up a mouthful of his precious Centaurian cola. He laughed, choking, and finally exclaimed, "So this guy literally eats lightning and craps thunder?"

 

The food was as good as Don promised, savoury and flavorful, and both Will and Judy were practically moaning with each mouthful. Don rested his chin on his palm and watched them, his usual suave smile a bit goofy, especially when aimed at Judy. Robot returned to their table, his presence as strong in Will's mind as it was behind his chair, as though curious about the concept of enjoying nutritional intake.

 

What does it feel like for you? he wondered at Robot.

 

Will didn't see anything from Robot, but an intense sensation, on the edge of pain, flashed through his limbs, making him gasp. It vanished in a heartbeat, leaving him panting and shaking.

 

"Are you okay?" Judy asked, her critical stare combing over Will, probably clocking his vitals by sight alone.

 

"Yeah." Will took a sip of his sweet, fizzy drink, trying to hide his tremble. "Robot was showing me what it's like to eat lightning."

 

Judy and Don shared a look that had become far too familiar to Will in the past two years; that look of shared concern, disbelief, almost fear. He'd seen it pass between his parents more often than he could count. 

 

Will forced a smile. "So, uh, should we go find Penny? I'm worried about her being unattended in a mall."

 

Don chuckled. "No doubt. Well, I'm about done. How about you two?"

 

Minnie brought her scanner around to subtract credits from their comms. After she scanned Will's, Robot held out his wrist as well, and the comm that almost disappeared against his dark metal skin.

 

"You only need to pay in return for goods or services," Will explained. "You didn't eat anything, so you're good."

 

Robot considered him, and then pointed at the painting above the table. 

 

Will laughed when he understood Robot's meaning. "He likes the art," he explained to Minnie. "And wants to pay you in return."

 

She blinked rapidly, her gaze bouncing back and forth between them. Then she offered a shy smile. "They're for my customers to enjoy. I'm glad he likes them, but, uh, it's not really on the menu."

 

Will elbowed Robot's hip. "You can buy me a drink to go?"

 

To his surprise, Robot nodded and pushed his arm toward Minnie. She chuckled nervously as she programmed something into her scanner and bleeped it over Robot's wrist. When she returned with Will's bottle of cola, she offered a quiet, "See you again soon." Her gaze went to Robot as she spoke, and Will was grateful to see that curiosity had mostly replaced her terror.

 

They went to leave and Will spotted several faces disappearing from the entrance; they'd apparently had an audience. 

 

The market wasn't quite so empty when they exited. Penny waved at them from the intersection, where she'd been talking with a girl and boy about her age or a little younger. They were dressed in stylish Centauri clothes, revealing tanned arms and legs that made Will painfully aware of his own pasty space skin. They hung back while Penny trotted to meet her family. 

 

"Guys, I just ate the galaxy's best hot dog," she declared. "And met some peeps."

 

"Already making friends," Will observed, a little envious of Penny's comfort with new people and how she never experienced the nerves he always felt. 

 

"You made friends with an alien robot," Penny said, eyes rolling. She walked backwards in front of them so Will could see her annoyance with him. "Other humans are easy."

 

" He made friends with me, I'm pretty sure," Will corrected.

 

Penny shook her head and snorted.

 

The two teens watched them approach with widening eyes. Penny moved back to take Robot's arm and said, with her usual loud bluntness, "I know. He's a bit to get used to and kind of weird at first, but what can I say? He's my baby brother." She smacked Will on the shoulder and gave him a shove. "This is Will."

 

For a moment, as Will stumbled and almost fell in front of those teens, he could've killed her. Then he saw amusement overtaking the trepidation on their faces. Penny's comfort with Robot, the way she included him in her joke, had a profound impact. 

 

Sometimes Will wondered just how much Penny had picked up from Dr Smith. He just hoped that she only used her newfound powers for good. 

 

"Wow, good to meet you, bro," said the guy, grabbing Will's hand in a strong, warm shake and helping him find his feet. "I’m Les. This is Pavi. We've heard of the Robinsons."

 

A little shy under the older teen's attention, Will murmured, "And we've heard about Alpha Centauri."

 

"Like the shopping!" Penny abandoned Robot to sling an arm around Will's shoulders. "What's taking so long? This girl is refueled and ready for launch."

 

"Is there anywhere that sells paint? Or art supplies?"

 

"For sure," said Pavi. "Everyone has a hobby here. There's a craft store if you go down that hall and turn left at the next intersection."

 

"Oh, I have to see this." Penny danced in place, her eyes shining. "I never thought I'd see Robot buy something!"

 

"Wait," said Pavi. "It's for the robot? It paints ?"

 

" He paints," Will corrected. "Yeah, he's getting really good."

 

"So cool." The two teens were swiftly losing their apprehension, and they headed in the direction they'd pointed out previously. "Come on," called Pavi over her bare shoulder. "It's this way."

 

Penny shrugged at Will and followed. Robot thudded after her and Will hurried to keep up. Behind him, Judy called, "I saw an athletic store. I'll find you after!"

 

Many of the shop doors in the east corridor had closed, Will was sad to discover. Word must not have traveled to the next corridor at least; most of those doors remained open. The two teens stepped into one with a display of knitted shirts and paper flowers on the wall.

 

The shop, like The Centaurian, looked about as Will had expected: a former house, walls removed, shelves and a long counter taking their place. Robot stood just outside the door, considering the cramped aisles, when Will arrived at his side. 

 

"A little tight," Will observed, eyeing the yarn oozing off of the shelves, the racks of fancy paper, the stands of… pens? Maybe? The others were already poking around, and a thin, startled man stared at them from the back. "Maybe you can fit over there and we can bring stuff for you to look at?" Will pointed at a space cleared around a small table covered in fabric. 

 

Robot nodded and edged in. Will winced as a clump of red yarn caught on his plates and spikes, and a set of crochet hooks lodged into the gaps  in his abdomen. 

 

"What do you think he'd like?" Penny asked when Will joined her.

 

"I don't know. Maybe we can start with some kind of kit? Like a painting kit?" Will wandered down the aisles, always with a careful eye returning to Robot. He grinned fondly when he saw Robot getting himself increasingly tangled in the bright red yarn. "And, um, maybe he wants to learn how to knit?"

 

"I'm dying, Will. Robot doing real life is just killing me. I've waited two years for this."

 

"Me too."

 

"Where did you find him?" asked Pavi. She popped around a corner, a box under her arm. 

 

"He crashed on the first planet we landed on--"

 

"Don't tell anyone," Penny hissed. "You'll spoil the books."

 

"Books?" Will and Pavi repeated. 

 

"I'm almost done the second one." Penny nodded at the box. "What'cha got there?"

 

"The best in extruded paper," Pavi said, holding out the package. "Do you think he'd like it?"

 

"Yeah, go show it to him. Tell him what it is and what it's for." Will offered an encouraging smile. "He won't bite."

 

"Because he doesn't have a mouth," Penny whispered. 

 

Pavi gave a shaky nod and tripped over to where Robot was spinning in a slow circle trying to reach a piece of yarn stuck on his back spikes without destroying the shelves around him. He stopped when she approached and stared steadily at her while she held out the paper and spoke rapidly, colour rising in her face. When she finished, he solemnly accepted the package in his giant palm. 

 

"Aw, he's making new friends, too." Penny shook Will's shoulder. "Come on. What colours does Robot like?"

 

"Um. I don't even know if he sees colours like we do. But let's go find out." 

 

They spent several minutes picking through the available jars of paints. Will read the labels, curious about how the Centaurians found and used the ingredients of their new planet. Penny just seemed happy whisking them over to Robot to get his opinion. Her new friends were just as enthusiastic, carting random items to Robot's table, where he would pick them up between gentle claws and carefully turn them this way and that. 

 

A sizable collection soon sprawled all over the table. Will noticed the shop owner hovering at the back of the shop, his hands clasping and unclasping. His nervous gaze moved regularly from Robot to the shop door, as though he was expecting someone or something. 

 

Uneasy, Will made his way to Robot. "Uh, hey, we should pick some things and maybe try another shop. How much are they, anyway?"

 

"Here." Les picked up a brush and rolled it to show Will a nearly invisible block of black lines on the handle. "Just scan it with your comm and it'll bring you to the shop page."

 

Will did as he was told and blinked, surprised at the price that came up. "Really?" he yelped. "That's almost half of my credits!"

 

"I guess they're hard to make." Les shrugged.

 

"Robot, I don't think we can get much this time. What's your favourite?"

 

Robot's expression didn't change much from his thoughtful blue-white starscape, but Will could sense his discomfort, as though he was overwhelmed by the choices. His hand passed over the stacks of paints, rolls of fabrics, pens and brushes, bits of thread and tubes of glitter. Will didn't blame him; after years of bad options and worse options, Will didn't think he'd fair much better if suddenly presented with a bunch of things he actually wanted. 

 

Movement at the door of the shop caught his attention. A man and woman in lightly armoured uniforms--obviously security--sidled in, glancing about warily.

 

Will froze, gripping the paintbrush tightly, his heart lurching in apprehension. After their time on the Resolute and Fortuna, and the Robinson family's antagonistic relationship with authority, the sight of security personnel made him want to run or hide. 

 

Robot made a hissing, whirring noise that Will recognized as the sound of some of his parts decoupling, preparing for battle. 

 

"Woah, um, I'm sure it's fine," Will murmured to Robot, trying to convince himself. "But we should probably pick something and move on." He hurriedly began rescuing the red yarn from Robot's back as Robot held up a little jar of purple paint.

 

The shopkeeper made his way to the two officers. Will couldn't hear much of their conversation, but the rather frantic "But it wasn't supposed to come here ," was loud enough. 

 

He tried not to let it bother him. After what had happened on the first planet, when he made Robot walk off a cliff because people were afraid of him, Will would never allow other people's fear of Robot affect his own feelings for him. But that didn't help him feel any less targeted. Discriminated against, maybe. 

 

At least they weren't alone. If it was just Will, he would probably try to slink away. But Penny loudly encouraged Robot to take his time with his selection. 

 

"What's your favourite thing to draw?" Penny asked, her hip against the table, paint rolling in one hand. 

 

Robot pointed at Will, and then Penny.

 

"Aw, Robot. We love you, too. So what colours are we?" She scanned the jar and gave a low whistle. "You can get two colours if you want the paper, too. Which one is Will?"

 

He held up the purple. 

 

"Awesome." Penny took it and passed it to Will. "I like it. And me?"

 

After some hunting, he found a jar of yellow. 

 

"Really? Yellow? If you say so…"

 

Someone cleared their throat. Will whirled around to meet the concerned gaze of the female officer. "Excuse me. Are you Will Robinson?"

 

"Yeah, that's me." Any moment, Will expected to be led off to house arrest or a detention cell. 

 

"The shop is closed. We've been asked to escort you off the premises."

 

"Oh, um, of course. We're just going to buy a few things. Where's the…?" He craned his neck to seek out the shopkeeper, but he seemed to have vanished. 

 

"He had an emergency to attend to. I'm afraid you'll have to leave without making your purchases."

 

"That's crap," Penny blurted. "That guy was giving Robot the stink eye this entire time and now he has a mysterious emergency? Utter crap."

 

The officer had the decency to look uncomfortable. "It's not for me to say. I just need you and your robot to leave."

 

"He's not my robot," Will corrected, his own annoyance building. "He's my friend. He's a person. He just wants to make some art!"

 

Briefly, the officer seemed uncertain, her eyes moving from Robinson to Robinson. Then she shook her head. "Time to go, kids. Try not to make such a big mess next time."

 

"But it's not fair! He has as much a right to be here as any of us. This colony is his home!" Will's anger at all the injustices Robot had faced since their meeting bubbled just below his skin. Always, he was helpless to protect his friend: too young, too weak, not smart enough to reason with the adults. 

 

"Come on. Let's not start your new life on a bad foot--" She grabbed his upper arm, not cruelly, but firmly.

 

Robot dropped the yellow. It smashed loudly on the floor as his hand closed around her forearm. His stars radiated in threatening streaks, though he maintained his cool colours. 

 

She didn't immediately start screaming, so he must not have squeezed very hard. Will was grateful for that minor blessing. 

 

She paled, though, and beads of sweat appeared under the edge of her helmet. "Tell it to release me." Her voice didn't shake, but it was thin and brittle as glass. 

 

" Him ," said Will. He wished he could feel smug for turning the tables on her, but he had grown in the past years. He knew that Robot's concern could backfire. Carefully, trying to avoid antagonizing the officer, he said, "He's very protective of his friends. If he thinks one of us is in danger, he will act. Please let go of me. We don't want any trouble."

 

She swallowed visibly and her hand opened. Robot's did the same a moment after. 

 

Will breathed in relief. "Okay. Let's go." 

 

Shopping very quickly lost its charm. Robot and Will loitered in the halls while Penny and her friends met up with Judy and Don, and hunted through the few shops that kept their doors open. Will probably should've gotten himself some new clothes before starting school, but he couldn't bring himself to leave Robot by himself. He didn't really need clothes, anyway. Colony uniforms were just fine .

 

"Do you have shops back on your home planet?" Will asked, leaning against the steel wall by Robot. It was all he could do to project an air of relaxation while people stared whenever he wasn't looking. He sipped his Centaurian cola, and then added, "How do you get stuff?"

 

Robot seemed to think about the question, his stars becoming formless. Then he reached out a hand. When Will rested his own on Robot's palm, he immediately felt a strong presence in his mind. Ah, Robot wanted to show him. 

 

He nodded to answer Robot's silent question. "Go ahead," he said. 

 

The market rushed away from him and a terrible vision snapped in to take its place. Darkness and fire surrounded him where he lay on some kind of conveyor. Everything was movement and noise, grinding and whining and roaring. An enormous machine loomed over him, its lights flat and emotionless. Its many arms moved quickly over him, and he could sense himself shuddering from impact after impact as those arms drove into him. Then sensations sparked to life; body, appendages. The newness of it was agony, but he had no voice to scream--

 

Will returned to himself on the cold floor, back to the wall, Centaurian cola making a puddle beside him. Robot had sunk to one knee on his other side, holding his arm gently so he didn't completely fall over. 

 

"Wow, uh." Will rescued his drink and edged away from the puddle, pressing himself against Robot’s leg. He took a few steadying breaths before looking up to meet Robot's thoughtful gaze. "Okay. So you were built. Everything you are and have… it was added on to you?"

 

Robot nodded.

 

"Did you ever get to… choose? Like. What parts you got? Or the colour?" Will rubbed a thumb on Robot's metallic blue palm, noticing how smooth and warm he was, how his joints moved fluidly beneath the caress.

 

"No," Robot said. 

 

"Who did?"

 

The big question: Who created the robots?

 

Robot's shoulders rose and fell in a human gesture. With his free hand, he poked Will's bare arm, and then flicked his dark blond bangs. 

 

Will chuckled. "No, I didn't choose my colour, either. But that's genetics. It's different. I think?" He pondered that. Was the programming of his DNA much different from the programming of Robot's mysterious creator?

 

"Hey, you okay?"

 

Will looked up and saw Judy coming down the corridor, Don a few steps behind her. He met her concern with a weak smile. "Yeah, I'm fine."

 

Judy came to a stop over him, her dark eyes roving from his face, to the puddle, to Robot, still kneeling beside him. Will jerked his hand back and scrambled to his feet, Robot rising smoothly beside him. A blush burned his face and he didn't know why, just that he was embarrassed to be caught in yet another moment of weakness, Robot literally holding his hand. As quickly as his embarrassment came, it was replaced by annoyance. 

 

"Find what you want?" he asked. "I want to get out of here."

 

She shrugged. "I was mostly just looking to see what's here. Getting the lay of the land. I got an eyeliner, though." She gave a shy little smile, reminding Will of the big sister who had asked for makeup advice from their clueless mother back on Earth. 

 

"Great," Will snapped. "Now you'll look nice for all these snobs."

 

Her brows jumped. "Will, really . You know it takes time. Time and knowledge--they’re afraid because they don’t know him." Penny must have told her what happened.

 

"They had time!" Will's voice cracked, making him flush and pound a fist against the unyielding wall. "And they were told everything they need to know."

 

"How could they when we don't even know everything? About him. About the others. You can't tell me that you don't learn something new about him every day." Judy softened. "I'm sorry about what happened, but getting angry isn't going to help. It's one thing to know about Robot as some… abstract entity who helped a wave of colonists get here.” She waved vaguely upward. “But it's another to have him walk into your life. You can't blame them for being afraid."

 

"Yes I can," Will grumbled. "Because it's stupid."

 

The steadying weight of Robot's hand settled on Will's shoulder. That he could try to offer comfort while he had been wronged made Will's chest squeeze. It just wasn't fair

 

But that hand effectively extinguished his rage. The fight bled out of him, leaving him exhausted. "Can we just go?" he asked quietly. 

 

"Yeah," Don said. "I'll walk you home." He put an arm around Will's shoulders and Will couldn't help a little shiver of tension from coiling through his gut. Don even smelled good: metal, oil, smoke, and some kind of cologne. "Try not to worry about it. It won't be long before Robot saves the planet and all these doors open for him."

 

Will tried to smile; difficult, when he was equal parts excited by the proximity, confused by his own reaction, and furious that Robot had to prove himself. Again. 

 

Don patted his back and nodded at Robot’s leg. "I like the splash of yellow, by the way. It’s a good look for him."

Chapter Text

Three

 

The walk back to the Robinson house was quiet and dreary. 

 

The orange sun continued to hover near the horizon, where it would remain for another hour or so. The purple twilight, once new and interesting, had already lost its fascination to Will. A building headache made him wonder if the dim light was giving him eye strain, or if it was the result of his dark mood.

 

Don maintained a low level of chatter, but no one else seemed inclined to talk. For Will's part, he felt betrayed by their reception in the colony--they could be heroes in space, but they couldn't just lead a normal life. 

 

"Do you want to come in for a drink?" Judy asked Don when they reached their house. 

 

"I thought you'd never ask," he replied, his dashing grin bright in the house light.

 

"Robot, can I come hang out with you?" Will asked, relieved when Robot nodded. He didn't want to watch Don and Judy and their special moments, and the alternative was hiding in his room; a habit he didn't want to get back into. 

 

"Make sure you hydrate, Will," Judy said. "Come grab some water."

 

Will bristled. "Robot has water. And I'm not a kid. I know how to not die ."

 

"You're my kid brother, and I love you and don't want you to pass out again."

 

"I didn't pass out." Without waiting for an answer, Will dropped off the step and headed for Robot's house. 

 

"Will," Judy called halfheartedly. 

 

Robot carefully unlocked his house while Will folded his arms and leaned against the smooth beige wall, brooding. He didn't even know why so much anger seethed in his gut, but that everyone on that planet seemed intent on disappointing him. 

 

Except Robot, of course, who welcomed Will in with a little wave. 

 

Will entered the cool interior, grateful for the climate control. The living room screen powered on with their arrival, showing a still shot of the documentary Robot had been watching. Will kicked off his boots and collapsed on his back on the couch, sock feet dangling over the arm. "What're you watching? Did you find anything good in the colony database? I heard that about half of the Resolute's servers were full of videos, books, and games that they would bring to update the collection here."

 

Robot thudded around behind him, moving into the kitchen. Will closed his eyes, content to listen to the familiar sounds of his dearest friend in his own space. He relaxed, the knots in his stomach loosening. 

 

Then he jumped and squawked when something tickled the bottom of his foot. 

 

Robot stood at the end of the couch, a metal cup in one hand, the other frozen where Will's feet had been. He seemed startled, his expression swirling. Slowly, he reached for Will's foot again, where it had jerked up onto the back of the couch. 

 

"Oh, no you don't," Will laughed, sitting up and pulling his feet under his body. "I am not going to reveal humanity's greatest weakness." Had he ever been in sock feet around Robot before? Surely. But probably wrapped in a sleeping sack and unconscious. Robot probably didn't even know what human feet looked like under the footwear; Will had always worn shoes on the Jupiter. What would he think of toes?

 

Robot reached out with the cup and Will automatically accepted it. 

 

"Oh," he said, surprised to find it full of water. "Um. Thank you." He sipped; it was warm, but suddenly he was terribly thirsty. He drained it quickly and set the empty cup on the table. "I'll let Judy know that you're taking good care of her kid brother." He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice. Before his annoyance could return, he leaned back and waved at the screen. "Do you want to watch something?"

 

Robot considered the screen and made a high-pitched electronic noise. The screen reverted to its main menu. 

 

Will grinned. "Because of course you can just talk to it in its own language."

 

Robot navigated to, of all things, a cartoon. Will laughed when he saw the title. "You're way cooler than Astroboy," he said as the theme song played. "He can fly, but you've got four arms, telepathy, and me."

 

They watched the first few minutes in silence until Will started to feel uncomfortable. He shifted around, leaning and flopping this way and that, but couldn't relax. It took another few minutes to realize why. 

 

Robot stood beside the couch, perfectly motionless except for the haze of white stars and a very rare and subtle shift, as though in response to the planet's rotation or magnetic fields. 

 

Will had never sat and watched something with someone who just… stood there. Like a statue. 

 

"Hey, Robot." When that starry face turned toward him, Will patted the couch. "Do you want to sit with me?"

 

Robot stared.

 

Will bounced. The couch felt solid enough. "It probably won't break," he added. "It's more fun to watch things, you know, together."

 

After one of those thoughtful pauses, Robot paced over. Will squeezed over to one end and Robot slowly lowered himself onto the middle with a few snatches of the faint whirring noise that indicated he was rearranging something internally. 

 

He sank into the thick, fabric-covered foam as though it wasn't even there. Will found himself falling in toward the centre of the couch and had to grab the arm. Then the solid plank of printed resin snapped in half, dropping Robot to the floor and making Will lose his grip. He slid down and came up against Robot's hard shoulder. Laughing, he tried to straighten himself out. 

 

"Sorry, I guess it's not as strong as I thought." He gave up on sitting upright and just leaned in. "We can take the legs off later. Is this okay?"

 

Robot nodded.

 

Happy, Will snagged one of the two grey foam pillows and propped it on Robot's shoulder so he could curl up and rest his head. "I can't even remember the last time I went to a friend's place, or watched TV. Hey, if you have any questions about anything, you know you can ask me, right? I mean, Earth doesn't look anything like that. And we're not that good at making robots." On screen, Astroboy had discovered his ability to fly. "Most of our TV is fantasy. Stories. Do you have that? Stories that you tell each other? Or dreams? Hopes?"

 

Robot freed his arm and placed it on the back of the couch behind Will's shoulders. His huge hand draped over Will's leg, heavy but not uncomfortable. Will went with it, adjusting his pillow against Robot’s chest. He wasn't sure what the gesture meant, but it made him feel warm in a way that had nothing to do with the climate control. 

 

Then one of Robot's middle fingers reached a little further and scraped lightly over the top of his foot.

 

"Hey!" Will complained, tightening into a ball to protect his feet, glad that Robot hadn't realized only the bottoms were ticklish. "Sneaky. Very sneaky."

 

Robot exuded an air of satisfaction and returned his attention to the screen. 

 

As they watched, Will offered little tidbits of information. He explained how Astroboy's father was a scientist and loved his son so much that he created a robotic version imbued with magical science powers, but he probably wouldn't have died if he had a mother like Maureen to knock some sense into his dad. He explained the relationship between the city's mayor and people. He enjoyed the way Robot's arm tightened minutely when Astroboy first made friends, and then hastened to reassure him when Astroboy lost his friends and had to fight to save the city from the evil magical science powers. 

 

"Danger," Robot commented, concerned. 

 

"It'll be okay," Will said, patting the plates of Robot's chest. "Movies like this always have a happy ending."

 

They were just getting to the climax when the door buzzer went. Will started to pull away, expecting Robot to stand, but Robot held him in place and made a chirping, electronic noise to tell his door to open. 

 

"Hey, Robot, how's it--" John Robinson swaggered in and stopped in the entryway, his eyebrows crawling up as he took in Robot, Will, and Robot's broken couch. The door hissed shut behind him. After a moment he cleared his throat and offered a weak smile. "I see you've discovered what happens when you let Will on the furniture."

 

"Danger," Robot agreed.

 

John chuckled. "Yeah, exactly." He shuffled his boots on the doormat. 

 

Even in civilian, colony-issued clothes--the same loose, breathable pants and white shirt that Will wore--he looked strong and capable, his posture easily confident, like at any moment he could either settle down with a beer or take command of an emergency. Will could only hope to have half of his assurance when he grew up. Something seemed to be bothering him, though. Will expected him to tell them what was wrong, but instead he edged in and noticed the movie playing on the screen by the door. 

 

"Oh, uh, this one. How… appropriate. When it's done, do you two want to come back to our place? Mom's cooking. Well, Judy's cooking. Mom's advising. Robot, I know you don't eat, but it's worth watching."

 

"Yeah, sure," Will said. "Thanks, Dad."

 

John glanced between the two of them. He drew in a breath as though to say something, and then shook his head and scrubbed his short brown hair. "Right. Uh. See you soon, then."

 

When he left, Will shrugged and went back to watching the movie. 

 

They returned to the Robinson house in the darkness of Proxima’s true dusk; the sun had finally descended below the horizon, leaving a purple bruise to the west, a few clouds underlit with orange still lingering. Will spared it a long stare, refamiliarizing himself with the sunsets of his new home, before continuing. He hopped up the front step with much less energy than before--he was tired and hungry , and curious about what Judy could be cooking. 

 

Inside they found Don and Penny on the living room couch talking with Judy over the partition separating them from the kitchen. They offered brief greetings and then went back to their conversation--something about growing cocoa. The air was fragrant with what smelled like pasta sauce and quiet classical music played from somewhere. 

 

Will toed off his boots and murmured to Robot, "I gotta go use the washroom."

 

He hurried to the hallway and made his way to the first bathroom, next to his parents' room. As he passed their door, he heard their voices and immediately recognized John's "I don't want to alarm anyone, but…" tone.

 

What now? Will thought, leaning against the wall by their door. They'd made it. There weren't supposed to be any more life or death emergencies…

 

"It's definitely not what you're thinking," Maureen said in response to whatever had concerned John. Will could imagine her eyes rolling. "They're different species, for one."

 

"But you didn't see them--"

 

"They're just good friends."

 

" Very good."

 

"Don't worry about it. We have so much on our plates, we don't need to add imagined problems."

 

Will snorted softly. She wouldn't be saying that if she’d seen them, too. Even Will could see that Don and Judy were becoming more than friends. Calling them different species was a little harsh, though; Don might be a mechanic, but he was one of the best, and easily as smart as any Robinson when it counted. And Will couldn't see why Don and Judy being together would be a problem. Maybe they just weren't ready to be grandparents. 

 

Will wondered what it would be like to be an uncle as he used the washroom and cleaned up, washing the dust off his face and drinking a few handfuls of water. When he emerged, he met Maureen in the hallway, typing something into her comm.

 

"Will," she said when she saw him, smiling in that tired, relieved way that she'd smiled since parents and children had reunited. As though every time they parted ways, she remembered those harrowing months. "How are you? I heard today wasn't exactly… ideal."

 

"It's…" Not fair, he wanted to say. "It's fine," is what he said instead, knowing it was what she wanted to hear. "It'll just take time."

 

"That's right." She rubbed his shoulder and then rifled his hair, reminding him that he wanted to get it cut. "You're getting so tall."

 

"It was all that time in space with less gravity," Will joked, batting her hand away and running his fingers through his hair to push it away from his face.

 

She laughed. "That might be true. Doesn't explain this , though." She held his shoulders. They didn't seem much broader to him, but she must have thought so. 

 

"Soup's on!" Judy called from the kitchen.

 

Will's stomach gurgled in response. He gravitated back to the kitchen and paused in the doorway, amazed at the sight as John and Don finished setting the table and Judy and Penny carried covered serving dishes over. 

 

"Turning into a home, isn't it?" Maureen said softly behind him. 

 

Will nodded, but then his gaze found Robot standing motionless to one side. How could it really be a home if Robot didn't have a place? "We should build a really strong chair," he remarked. 

 

Maureen chuckled. "Good idea."

 

Will took the seat closest to Robot and gestured for him to come closer so he could describe everything to him: from the tomato-based sauce, garlic-covered bread, and tofu noodles, to the concept of a country back on Earth called Italy that had given that type of food its name. 

 

"They didn't have tofu, though," Don said around a mouthful. He tipped his fork toward Judy. "I can't believe you made this taste good."

 

"If you add enough garlic, anything tastes good," Penny said. 

 

"You mean, if you add enough garlic, everything tastes like garlic," John said. At Judy's raised eyebrow, he hurriedly continued, "Which is good. I like my garlic with a tiny bit of noodles and sauce on the side."

 

The family laughed.

 

When they'd all eaten their fill, Will was voluntold to wash dishes. He groaned. That was the downside of a home cooked meal. The others scattered: Penny to her studies, Judy and Don out somewhere. Leaving Will with his parents. 

 

Maureen grabbed a cloth to dry, smiled when Will complained that all dishes should be compostable, and said, "We need to talk with you and Robot."

 

Will's shoulders tensed. He froze with his hands in the hot soapy water, his gaze fixed on a plastic ladle covered in sauce. 

 

"Oh, it's okay, Will. It's nothing to worry about. Well, maybe it's something for us to worry about." 

 

That didn't exactly ease Will's concern. He glanced at her warily, found John leaning a hip on the counter near the kitchen door, his muscular arms folded, and Robot standing in the living room, silently watching. He slowly resumed washing. "What is it?" he asked stonily.

 

"It's about your connection with Robot. Judy mentioned that you had a strong physiological response to it today."

 

"Fainting," John clarified. He offered a little smile. "I, uh, had to ask what she meant."

 

"I didn't faint," Will snapped. "Robot was just showing me things."

 

Maureen continued calmly, "We don't know much, if anything, about this connection between you. We haven't really had a chance to study it. We'd like you to consider seeing the neurosurgeon here. She'll take some scans, do some baseline assessments. Just so we know if there are any impacts to your health."

 

"Robot would never hurt me," Will said to the noodle pot. 

 

"No," Maureen agreed. "We all know that. We trust that. More than you know. But has he ever done this before with a human? Somehow I doubt it."

 

"And it's not just negative impacts," John added. "What if there are positive side effects? Wouldn't that be good to know?"

 

"I already know the positive side effects. Saving everyone on the Resolute!" Will slammed a plate into the drain rack, making it rattle the others, and he briefly wished he could just hurl it at the floor. 

 

"Easy," John said softly. "We're not trying to pick a fight. We just want you to see Dr Choi for a few minutes."

 

"Fine. For a few minutes." He knew better than to argue.

 

"Thanks, Will," Maureen sighed. "And now a question for Robot."

 

"You're not taking him apart!" Will flared, envisioning some engineer trying to get to the bottom of Robot’s telepathy.

 

"What? No!" John held up his hands. "I'm going to ask him to come work with me."

 

"Oh." Will sagged. "Uh. Sorry."

 

"We know why you're so protective," Maureen said. "But you must know that we care about Robot, too. He's family."

 

"Yeah." Will hid his shaking hands in the water. He didn't know why he was so angry. "Yeah, I know that."

 

"I've been assigned to the new colony site," John explained. "Managing the construction. I can't think of anyone else I'd like to have with me."

 

That made Will smile. "Yeah. Me too. But hasn't he done enough?"

 

"Haven't we all?" John scoffed. "This isn't an 'enough' situation. There's a lot of work to do to keep the colony running and growing, and not a lot of time to do it. Robot’s an equal here. Equal rights, equal responsibility. That means working. But he gets to choose. I think it's a good fit for him to come with me, but maybe there's something else he'd like to do? There are a lot of assignments that don't require language. Construction, exploration, distribution, sanitation…"

 

"What about school? He needs to learn about us."

 

John blinked and then burst into laughter.

 

"John," Maureen said warningly. "It's a legitimate thought "

 

"Yeah, it is," John agreed shakily, wiping his eyes. "I'm just imagining the other parents if they see their kids in class with Robot in the back. And the first time he raises his hand to answer a question, he'll probably put a hole in the ceiling."

 

Will's smile returned. It would be pretty funny. 

 

"So what do you think, Robot?" John said, turning to address Robot directly. "Do you want to come work with me?"

 

The calm nebula of Robot's expression became a spiral galaxy.

 

"He needs more information," Will said. 

 

"Oh. Uh." John seemed to make a point of meeting Robot's gaze. "Well, we'll be going out to the work camp for about a hundred and thirty hours at a time, about three Centauri days. Right now it's mostly digging and laying foundations. You'll work directly with me. And no more than anyone else. I know you're stronger and don't need rest like humans do, but I'm only going to ask you to work the same hours as any other person on my team."

 

"A hundred and thirty hours?" Will repeated, experiencing one of those pangs in his chest. "That's like an Earth week!"

 

"Yeah. It's about four hours by Chariot to get there, so we leave Sunday afternoon and return Friday evening. Or the Centauri equivalent, anyway. I’m not sure it directly correlates."

 

"You're okay with this?" Will asked his mother. 

 

She smirked. "I just spent two years on a Jupiter with your father. We can do with some time apart."

 

"What do you say?" John prompted. "We can try it for a week and go from there."

 

"Does this have anything to do with what happened today?" Will asked.

 

John's slightly guilty expression answered the question. Will scowled and Maureen quickly stepped in.

 

"The other citizens will settle down when they see that he's working just like they are. John's team will get to know him. He'll make friends."

 

"And he'll be away from the colony," Will added, flinty.

 

"Yes." Maureen sighed. "I'm sorry, Will. I know the others are letting you down. But getting angry isn't going to help. Just like you said before: You need to give them time and a chance to get to know Robot. And you." She smiled and shook his arm gently. "They'll learn to trust him like we do."

 

Will wiped his soapy hands on his shirt and cast an anguished look at Robot. How could he go without his dearest friend? But his parents made a compelling argument. Maybe this is for the best. For a few weeks, anyway. If he has to work with someone, it may as well be Dad.  "What do you think, Robot? Probably better than the other options. At least your boss should be okay."

 

"Hey. I am an amazing boss, thank you. Number one. I had the mug to prove it."

 

"He bought that mug himself," Maureen whispered loudly.

 

Robot met Will’s stare with an implacable haze, and then he nodded. "Yes," he said.

 

"Wonderful!" John clapped loudly. "I appreciate it, Robot. To be honest I was worried about working with a new team. At least I'll have one man I can trust."

 

"You'll talk to him, right?" Will asked, concerned. "Especially about people?"

 

"Probably not as much as you do--definitely not as much--but, yeah, of course. And he'll have his comm. He can call you."

 

"And can you bring something for him to paint with? Something to do while the rest of you are sleeping?"

 

“I guess he doesn’t sleep, huh? Kind of a creepy thought, but yeah. I’ll see what I can dig up. Robot, you know you can load a few gigs of video on your comm, too, if you want."

 

Robot nodded.

 

"When are you leaving?"

 

"Tonight."

 

" What?!"

 

"Just kidding." John chuckled. "You should see your face. No. Two more days. Earth days, that is. We'll go on Monday and meet the team there."

 

That still wasn't great. Will frowned, arms tightly crossed. "Don't you ever take a break?"

 

"Whenever I try, something explodes." John grinned. "And I only wish I was joking. No. New waves of colonists are planned to come every few months. We need to be ready."

 

"Yeah." Will glared at the floor. He usually admired his father's sense of responsibility, except when it impinged on his family. 

 

"You'll have a few days to hang out, and then you'll be in class. It’ll be best for Robot to be working, anyway. He’ll meet new people, won’t get lonely. If he gets lonely." John moved in to clap Will on the shoulder. "How about you get some rest? We can go explore the outskirts tomorrow? Soak in some of the natural scenery?"

 

"Yeah." Will tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice, knew he was failing miserably. His parents were right, of course. They usually were, which annoyed him only slightly less than it annoyed everyone else. But that didn't mean he liked it. "That should be good," he added. "Robot, do you want to load some stuff on your comm? Maybe Penny has some ideas of what you'd like to watch."

 

Robot nodded, and some of the tension eased from Will's chest. Helping his Robot friend prepare for his work week was normal. Their new normal. 

 

Penny did have ideas, and plenty of commentary on Will's suggestions. They hung out with her in the living room, taking an in-depth look through the colony's libraries. Will discovered that his access was severely hampered by his age, and Penny teased him mercilessly about the fact that Robot could watch restricted videos and he couldn't. The evening wore on until John and Maureen appeared in their pyjamas and told Will to go to bed. 

 

"I'm not a kid," he complained, determinedly smothering a yawn. "And it's the weekend."

 

"And you're exploring a new planet tomorrow," John countered. "I don't want you to miss the great new views because you can't keep your eyes open."

 

Will scoffed, but Penny turned traitor and unfolded from the couch. "I have two years of sleep to catch up on," she said. "Goodnight, Robinsons."

 

"Fine," Will sighed. He got to his feet and stretched, reaching for the ceiling. When he settled back on his heels, he met Robot's stare with a little smile, pleased when faint rings formed in his starry field. "I'll see you out, Robot." He almost asked Robot to stay, but then he'd have to remain still and quiet while the humans were sleeping, which wouldn't be fair. 

 

Robot thudded after him to the door and Will stepped out into Proxima’s true night. He took a moment to look up at their new stars, but couldn’t see much more than a dim haze beyond the white house light. When Robot joined him, Will leaned in for a weary hug; letting himself collapse against Robot's chest. Truly, Robot was far more comfortable than anything made of molded metal had any right to be.

 

"Good night," he said. 

 

Robot held him gently, and then pushed him away enough that Will could see his face. His colour had taken on a purple tinge, the spirals had become pronounced. Will felt a definite sense of wanting from him, as though he were asking for something. 

 

"What is it?" Will asked, offering a half smile. He could think of nothing he wouldn't happily give.

 

Robot's claws slid down Will's arms, lightly grazing the skin and setting off an electric tingle that raced up to his shoulders.

 

Will shivered and broke into a sweat, suddenly boiling hot without knowing why. Was Robot trying to tell him something? Or was he dehydrated and tired like Judy kept accusing him? He rested a hand on Robot’s chest to support himself--his legs shook so badly that he was a little worried about falling over. “Sorry,” he murmured. “I don’t… feel so great.”

 

Those lights swam, stars darting across immense darkness, disappearing and reappearing in clusters as Robot thought. He nudged Will's sternum with a knuckle, as he had that morning. His other hand found Will’s and gently tickled the palm.

 

Heart hammering and stomach churning, Will tentatively tickled back, wondering if Robot could feel it--

 

The door swung open. Will jerked back reflexively, though he couldn’t say why he put that distance between them. 

 

Smiling warmly, John leaned in the doorway, arms folded. “Hey,” he said, “I wanted to say goodnight to Robot, too. G‘night, big guy. Thanks again for agreeing to work with me.”

 

Robot seemed to straighten, his spikes flaring slightly, but returned to normal so quickly that Will thought he’d imagined it. He regarded John for a steady moment, and then stepped away.

 

“Good night,” Will said again, feeling a lurch as Robot turned from him. He caught Robot’s arm and Robot immediately froze in place, though Will could never have restrained him. When Robot looked back, the heat returned to Will’s face. He didn’t know why he’d felt compelled to stop him… “Um. I can’t wait to see what you paint next. Even if it’s in ketchup.”

 

That plated head nodded once and Robot continued on.

 

Will watched him until he was nothing but a dark figure and a few specks of light disappearing through his door.

Chapter Text

Four

 

Will still felt unwell when he slipped into the bathroom to get ready for bed. He pushed back his irritatingly long bangs to consider his flushed face in the mirror. Was he sick? His stomach wobbled like a Jupiter that had lost its inertial compensator, but he didn’t feel nauseated exactly. Just. Flustered. His heart continued to beat rapidly, his arms and palm tingled where Robot had… caressed?... him? 

 

He hugged himself, trying to chase away the goosebumps that continued to prickle from wrist to shoulder.

 

What’s wrong with me? Maybe I should go see Judy… His reflection gave a little shake of his head, brown eyes flashing a warning. Yeah, no. I’d be locked down in quarantine in a flash. I just need to... to relax.

 

Right. Relax. He breathed deeply and closed his eyes, only to picture the new, purplish tinge to Robot’s starscape. Had he ever been purple before? White, blue, and red, yes. But purple? It meant something. Maybe. 

 

Or maybe not. Maybe Will was reading too much into it. 

 

“Dad’s probably right,” he chided the Will in the mirror. “You need some sleep.” Thinking about all this would get him nowhere.

 

He turned away from his own bruised gaze and moved to the toilet. As he finished up, his hand on himself and his thoughts on Robot, he felt a little thrill low in his belly and his flesh began to swell against the palm Robot had so recently stroked.

 

Oh.

 

Well.

 

That was one way to relax. 

 

His gaze fell on the glass-doored shower. I wouldn’t have to clean up after myself. With a mental shrug, he peeled off his clothes, stepped in, and turned it on. Cold water almost chased him back out, but it warmed quickly. He melted under it, eyes closed and forearm braced against the cool tiles. He rested his brow in the crook of his elbow, just letting the hot water pound into his back and shoulders. His free hand roamed, aimless and unhurried, over his slick stomach and chest. A long sigh escaped him, disappearing into the muted roar of the shower.

 

The mad churning of his stomach and panicked beating of his heart settled into a steady, powerful throb. His wandering hand found his hardening erection and tugged experimentally. It felt different when he was standing instead of lying down, the sensation of the water striking his back almost like someone touching him. 

 

He shivered, Robot’s long caress playing through his mind, the memory urging his movements to become faster, harder.

 

Was there a presence in the back of his head? He didn’t know. Moments like these, he couldn’t tell if he was thinking about Robot because Robot was there , or because he just was. Because he liked to think about him. Because he liked the elegant way his plates slid together, the intensity and enigma of his gaze, his strength and gentleness and patience and creativity and the sense of humour that came through in startling, wonderful moments.

 

Did he want to share this with Robot again? Yes. So much. Just the possibility made his hips jerk. He gasped a little, imagining Robot looking in, not by accident or in curiosity, but actually wanting to experience this basic human moment with him. 

 

He pulled hard, legs quivering in a way that reminded him of standing on the front step under that unfathomable stare. 

 

With a long groan, he came against the shower wall.

 

It took several long moments for him to catch his breath and several more for him to sluggishly soap up and rinse down himself and everything else.

 

Are you there? he asked into the silence. 

 

If there was an answer, he couldn’t hear it. Perhaps he was too tired or too distracted, or maybe Judy was on to something about Robot’s earlier sharing of memories exhausting Will somehow. Either way, he shuffled to his room through the dark, sleeping house, and collapsed onto his bed.

 

***

 

"Woah. You went to bed with wet hair again, hey?”

 

"Good morning to you, too," Will grumbled, swinging his door closed. 

 

John, who had knocked only moments earlier, chuckled and stuck his foot in the doorway. "It happens to all of us, Will. Nothing to be embarrassed about.” He ruffled his own short hair, minimally gelled to look effortlessly styled. “Even I have bad hair days. A bit of water will set you right.” 

 

Will rolled his eyes and pushed past John to get to the bathroom. His father was too ridiculous--the man went through crisis after crisis, always coming out the other end with perfect, if sometimes blood-crusted, hair.

 

After way too long taming the half of his head that was trying to stand straight up, Will joined John in the quiet kitchen. Artificial lights above the curtained window tried to make it feel like morning, though outside it was still dark, and would be for several more hours. 

 

"When are we going to start following Proxima time?" Will asked as he slid two pieces of sweetened soy loaf into the toaster. "I keep thinking of hours and days, but it doesn't match up with what's outside." 

 

John groaned. "You should see the committee meetings, Will. Can you imagine twenty sleep-deprived A personalities trying to come to a consensus on how to partition time? The conversation usually devolves into a thought exercise on whether it makes sense to base our time on Sol units when Earth will be uninhabitable in a few centuries, and then someone starts to cry." He shook his head and grimaced into his coffee. 

 

"I'm sorry I asked."

 

"You should be."

 

"So how are we going to see anything out there?" Will gestured at the window with a piece of toasted loaf, then had to juggle it from hand to hand to keep from burning his fingers. 

 

"This planet has a rich nightlife. Didn't you read the brochure?"

 

"I read that Proxima B's core is twelve percent larger and spinning twenty-seven percent faster than Earth's, which creates a magnetic field strong enough to withstand the solar winds and sustain the atmosphere."

 

John stared at him blankly, and then cracked a grin. He set his coffee aside and held up one hand. "Will: Remembers how the planet's core creates a magnetic field." He held up the other. "John: Remembers that the animals glow in the dark. I'm not sure which fact is more interesting."

 

"My fact is the reason we can survive here," Will said defensively. "But glow in the dark animals are cool, too."

 

"Thank you. Anyway, the area around the colony has been mapped extensively, including the spots where we'll see some wildlife. It should be easy enough to drive out and see some things, even in the dark. And then we can have some lunch and watch the sun rise."

 

"Sounds great." Will quickly devoured the last few bites of his loaf. "I'll pack sandwiches and drinks, and go get Robot." His groin tightened uncomfortably at the thought of seeing Robot after what he--they?--had done the night before. Stupid body , he bemoaned, quickly turning to the counter and busily digging out metal water canteens. Getting older sucked sometimes. 

 

"Will… how about just the two of us go? Get some father-son bonding time in?"

 

That quickly doused Will's ill-timed arousal. He whirled around, aghast, to see John rubbing the back of his neck in obvious discomfort. 

 

"What else is he going to do?" he protested. 

 

"I don't know. Whatever he does when he's alone? Or he can do something with Penny or Judy. You're not his only friend, Will."

 

But he's my only friend , Will almost protested, but had an agonizing sense that the admission would backfire on him. He didn't need to give John another reason to be concerned about their connection.

 

Instead, he shook his head, swallowed the lump in his throat, and tried to calmly explain, "You're going to take him away for days at a time. I want to spend today with him."

 

"I'm not taking him away--" John started, and then seemed to switch tactics. "You two have been inseparable since you found him again on the rust planet. Don't you think you should spend some time apart? Sometimes? And what about your old man? I haven't had one-on-one time with my son since we were working together on the water planet. I, you know, miss you."

 

Will winced and folded his arms defensively, glaring at the toaster as he thought. It was true that, apart from the sense of impending doom that had often hung over their time together, Will had enjoyed working with him. He'd been so happy to rebuild their relationship, and he'd certainly learned far more than any class or video could teach him. But unnecessary separation from Robot filled him with anxiety.

 

"There's no danger out there that we can't handle,” John added softly.

 

"It's not that." Will made a face. "I don't want Robot around for protection. I like to spend time with him. He… he's a good listener, he's curious, he thinks about things differently than we do, he cares about his friends, he's an artist, he comes from a different world." The next admission was difficult to get out. Will met John's warm brown gaze for only a moment before he had to look away again. "Sometimes I wish he wasn't as strong as he is. That I could protect him, too. Sometimes I wish he might… need me as much as I need him?"

 

"Oh, Will," John sighed. "I wish your mom was here."

 

Will laughed bitterly, mostly at himself. "Too much?"

 

John quirked his rueful little smile. "No, it's fine. You know, I'm glad you told me. Sometimes I feel like you're becoming someone I don't know, and I want to know you."

 

"I'm not that different."

 

"You only say that because you don't see yourself. You're turning into a young man. You're more confident, more outspoken. You've always been compassionate, but now there's a… a greater understanding. And I don't think you ever need to worry about Robot needing you. Even I can see that he cares about you, and it goes beyond protecting you from danger." He appeared troubled for a moment, and then gave his head a little shake. "He's lucky that you're the one who found him. You're probably the only person more interested in his paintings than in that laser thing he can do with his hand." John held up a hand and wiggled his fingers. 

 

Will relaxed and managed a weak smile, leaning back against the counter as knots of tension loosened in his shoulders.  "You really think so?"

 

"I know so." With a shrug, John added, "You know what? Sure. I'm happy if Robot wants to join us. It's probably good for me to spend more time with him, too, with his translator around. Since we're going to be working together."

 

"Great!" 

 

John's eyes remained narrowed in concern, but Will decided to ignore it. 

 

They packed quickly, Will humming with renewed excitement, and departed in the darkness to collect Robot.

Chapter Text

Five

 

John drove the Chariot from the Depot to the glowing posts that protected the colony safe zone. After triggering the perimeter to allow them to pass, he pulled over on the other side and asked, "You want to drive from here?"

 

Will's heart leapt. "Yes!" Then he deflated. "There're no cliffs or rivers around here, are there?"

 

"I don't know. What does it say on the map?" From John's smirk, dimly lit by the Chariot's display and headlights, he knew exactly what the terrain held, but he was giving Will a chance to take charge. 

 

Taking charge is a thing that I know how to do , Will told himself. He nodded and leaned forward to access the Chariot's computer. 

 

He hadn't had many opportunities to drive since leaving the water planet, but it started coming back to him as he scrolled to the map and initiated a sonar sequence to update the topography. 

 

"So where's the best view?" he asked. 

 

"I've been told that there's a really scenic plateau here," John scrolled the map over to a wide ridge. "It overlooks a valley where you can see plenty of glowing flora and fauna."

 

Will set their destination and route parameters with only a bit of hunting. Because he wasn't about to try driving a seventy degree incline, at least not with an audience, the Chariot would only get them so far. "We'll drive here," he said, pointing to the bottom of the ridge. "And then hike the rest. Sound good?" He glanced at John, who shrugged, and Robot, who glowed peacefully in the back. "Okay, great."

 

Will and John switched places, and Will groped around to familiarize himself with the controls. 

 

"Take your time," John said. He tilted his seat back and closed his eyes. "I really just wanted a nap."

 

"Ha. Ha." 

 

"I'm serious, though." John opened one eye. "Don't worry about us. Robot and I aren't in any hurry. Right, Robot?"

 

"Yes," said Robot. 

 

"He can run faster than I can drive us," Will muttered, but he was pleased at the chance to prove himself. 

 

After a minute or two, he’d made all the necessary adjustments and eased the Chariot into motion, bumping and crunching over the gravel road. 

 

"Remember to breathe every now and then," John said. "You're doing great."

 

Will forced himself to inhale and relax his shoulders. He watched the road illuminated in the Chariot's lights, following the edge carefully. The map showed a curving path to the ridge, with a few hills and gullies along the way. So long as Will didn't veer off and drive them into a rock or tree--or Proxima’s tall, fleshy black fungus equivalent--they would be fine. 

 

Fern-like leaves brushed the windows. From the corner of his eye, Will saw them flash bioluminescent-green as the Chariot touched them. He couldn't wait to see them up close--

 

"Watch out!" John suddenly barked. 

 

Will reflexively stood on the brake, throwing them all forward. He felt more than heard the grinding of the Chariot and a screech of metal on metal as Robot grabbed the frame. 

 

The Chariot slammed back onto its rear wheels and an alarm flashed on the screen. 

 

"What is it?!" Will cried, heart hammering and hands shaking.

 

John stared at him, white-faced, hands braced on the dash. "I didn't expect you to slam on the brakes . I just didn't want you to hit that thing!"

 

"Then you shouldn't have yelled! What thing?!" Will probed the darkness beyond the Chariot, and only after some determined staring did he discern several horizontal lines of glowing green and blue spots low to the ground past the lights. "What is it?" he whispered. 

 

"What are those , " John corrected. "Get a little closer. Slowly. If it's what I think it is, we don't have anything to worry about. But it's best to be careful. No more slamming on the brakes."

 

"You yelled, " Will reminded him. "Whatever those are, they're still fifty meters away. You didn't have to yell."

 

"Sorry. I didn't think you'd see them in time."

 

Will scoffed, shook his head, and turned his attention back to the road. After a few more breaths to steady his hands, he allowed the Chariot to creep closer. 

 

"Woah," he breathed as the Chariot's lights found the obstacle in their path. "What are those?"

 

Several dog-sized, heavily armoured insect-like creatures inched across the road. Will was reminded of gigantic millipedes and shuddered. 

 

"Umm." John performed a quick search on his comm. " Centauri Mycopoda manducantemortem . A.k.a. Big mushroom bug that eats dead things. Poisonous, but mostly harmless as long as you leave it alone."

 

"Mushroom bug?" Will repeated. 

 

"Most of the complex life they've found so far is more similar to fungus than anything else on Earth."

 

"Why is it so big?"

 

"So that we don't have to worry about them hiding in our boots."

 

Will gave his best impression of Judy's flat stare and John's straight expression cracked. "They think it's the oxygen levels. This planet is like prehistoric Earth, but with a few different molecules taking supremacy. Otherwise it's remarkable how similar its development is." John's face fell into troubled lines as he watched the slow-moving mycopoda. "That comes up in the committee meetings regularly; the ethics of taking over a planet that might have eventually developed sentient life."

 

"Or maybe there already is. Sentient life takes many forms." Will glanced at Robot.

 

"Have you been listening in on those meetings?" John's humor came across as strained, even to Will. 

 

The mycopoda, their legs a blur, continued into the fern-like foliage at the side of the road. Will stared after them, curious about the frilly, gill-like protrusions on their sides, the lines of nubs that may have been their lights, and the lack of a discernible head. He'd have to look them up later. 

 

"Looks like we can keep moving," John said when the last mycopoda had disappeared. "Carefully."

 

"Yeah, maybe you can rein in your instinct to panic."

 

"I didn't panic. I was being cautious."

 

"You shouted less when the Jupiter was crashing."

 

"Look, you have a child and teach them how to drive on an alien planet and then we'll talk."

 

Snickering and a little more relaxed, Will continued along the route mapped out for him. 

 

They weren't the only ones who'd followed it; even when they left the gravel road, they began to roll along a dirt track that had obviously seen a lot of use. Will navigated dips and hills, enjoying himself, and pulled to a stop when the terrain became considerably more vertical and the map beeped and told him that he'd reached his destination. 

 

"Great job, Will," John said as he hopped out of the Chariot. 

 

Will exited more slowly, stiff from tension, and took a long breath. Away from the colony, surrounded by the natural Proxima environment, the air was cooler, moist, with a musty, bitter smell. Will turned his gaze up and could pick out a few stars and a greenish glow in the breaks between the tall pillars of fungus that covered the landscape. Closer to the ground, the fern-like plants filled the spaces between the pillars. Brief specks of light in the darkness reminded him of the fireflies on his grandma's ranch, before the diminished air quality killed them off. Faint clicks, rustles, and fluttering combined into a gentle cacophony under the hush of the breeze. 

 

The Chariot shuddered with Robot's movements within and Will hurried to let him out the back. 

 

Once Robot unfolded himself and thudded to the ground, Will spotted the hole he'd made in the Chariot's floor, probably to keep from flying forward and crushing his fragile human friends. Will groaned. "Oh, no…" He was never going to be allowed to drive again. 

 

"That'll buff out," John said, rubbing his rugged goatee and considering the hole. He lifted an eyebrow at Will. "Just don't tell Don. The Chariots are his babies."

 

Does that make them my future nephews and nieces? Will wondered.

 

John pulled their gear out. He passed a headlamp to Will and fitted another on his own head. "Keep the setting low. Just enough not to trip on something. We need to keep an eye out for anything glowing--anything with lights on it is warning that it's poisonous or it's trying to lure food. Or a mate."

 

"We have lights on us," Will said, tapping his lamp. 

 

"And you're probably poisonous after a year and a half of space food." John shrugged into his pack and then secured the Chariot's doors. When the Chariot's lights faded, he became little more than another shadow in his black leather jacket, the light from his lamp barely illuminating his face. "We should make it to the plateau with plenty of time before sunrise. You want to take the lead?"

 

"Sure." Will settled his own pack, tightening the straps until it sat comfortably. He pulled up a proximity map on his comm, oriented himself, found what looked like a potential path, and started off. 

 

John fell into step behind him, and then paused. "Where did Robot go?"

 

Will glanced around, didn't see Robot's glowing face or lurking figure, and shrugged. Though he couldn't see him, he felt only peace from their quiet connection. "Exploring? He's not far away."

 

"I still can't get used to new Robot."

 

"New Robot?" Will picked his way into the ferns and found a thin track. Once again, they were not the first to go that way. But after exploring three new planets, he didn't mind following the path more travelled for once.

 

"You know. Independent Robot. Disappears-into-the-bushes-Robot. Moves-like-a-ninja-Robot."

 

Will laughed softly. “He’s not that different. He’s just starting to… figure out what he wants, I guess.”

 

“Yeah, I can see that.”

 

If there was something strange about John’s tone, Will didn’t have the attention to spare to worry about it--his new world was far more interesting than whatever concern his father was trying to hide. Will had realized a long time ago that his parents found trouble and it spilled over to the rest of the family no matter how hard they tried. He just had to be patient and eventually he would find out the problem--and usually wish he hadn’t.

 

He crouched to watch a small, multi-legged thing go across his path, and then continued. With careful gloved fingers, he touched the ferns and watched parallel, dotted lines of green light flash down the fronds. Large bat-like insects hummed overhead, barely visible until the tips of their legs blinked rhythmically. This seemed to lure the smaller insects, which blinked back and drew close, only to be snatched out of the air. 

 

The ground swiftly rose and the track led them to a steep, rocky incline. Someone had placed large stones, so it was an easy climb. Despite this, Will took it slowly, his arms and legs tiring quickly. He breathed heavily, his lungs starting to burn, as they ascended above the canopy of the forest below. 

 

John grunted occasionally, but otherwise made no indication that he was so much as exerting himself. 

 

Halfway up, a loud crash of metal on stone made Will jump and John curse. Will peered into the darkness and thought he saw blue-white light and a black figure quickly scaling the rocky scree several meters away. 

 

"Robot's showing off," he explained to John. "Must be nice having four arms."

 

John chuckled. "No doubt."

 

Will scrambled over the top several shaky minutes later. He crawled far enough away that John had room to follow and leaned back against a rock, panting. 

 

John pulled himself up and grinned, irritatingly unfazed. "What happened to your youthful energy?"

 

"The only exercise I got the past year was running for my life," Will said after a few ragged breaths. "In low gravity."

 

"You should join a sport. Didn't you used to play basketball?"

 

"Baseball."

 

"That's more of a heart attack waiting to happen."

 

Will shook his head and rolled his eyes skyward. His breath caught in a sudden clench of wonder and he completely forgot his fatigue. " Look !"

 

Rivers of white, green, and pink light rippled across the southern sky. The silent aurora was far brighter than the one weak version Will had glimpsed on Earth so long ago. Entranced, he could not tear his gaze away from the dancing light. 

 

"See?" John said. "It's worth it to come at night."

 

"Yeah." Will wet his dry lips and swallowed heavily. "It must be those strong cosmic winds hitting the magnetic field. It's beautiful, but it would irradiate us if it ever got through."

 

"That's a pleasant thought."

 

"I don't think we need to worry." Will sighed contentedly. He could watch those gossamer veils flutter across the heavens for the rest of the night. 

 

A quiet scrape of metal drew his attention, breaking the spell. Will turned, a smile already growing.

 

Robot stood behind him in his humanoid configuration, watching the lights as well. When he noticed Will's attention, he tilted his head down and played a shimmering blue-white curtain across his face. Will laughed, delighted.

 

"Come on. There's more to see over here." John clasped Will's hand to haul him to his feet. 

 

Will, already feeling his strength returning, or perhaps energized by the celestial display, eagerly followed John further onto the plateau. 

 

The soil there seemed thinner than in the forest below; the ferns and spires grew smaller and less densely, fewer insects flickered in the darkness. Will heard the hushing of the breeze under the crunch of their footsteps.

 

"Ah, here we are." After a few minutes of walking, they emerged from the ferns into a clearing at the other side of the plateau. It looked like a popular spot; rocks had been placed in a half-circle facing the edge.

 

Will hurried to the edge and looked over, heart lifting at the dimly seen vista that rolled away from his feet. The black hills glimmered and flashed in places, and a silver river snaked below them, reflecting the starlight and aurora. 

 

"Welcome to your new home," John said.

 

"Yeah," Will sighed. The beauty of the view was like a balm for his heart after the years of fear. "You, too, Dad. Robot." Without looking, he reached out and touched Robot's arm, the metal warm through his gloves.

 

"Do you see that?" John stepped close and pointed directly below them, where the river curved toward the plateau. On the far side, Will saw a large blob of spots and lines of light, shifting around.

 

"What is it?"

 

"A herd of the local large herbivore."

 

Will's initial interest was quickly dampened by the knowledge that herbivores rarely travelled alone. "Are there predators to go with those herbivores?"

 

"Of course. They don't come up here, though. This incline is even steeper than what we climbed, and the ranches block off that side." He indicated something off to the left, and Will pictured a field of sheep and green Earth grass inside a powerful perimeter.

 

"Where will you be working?" 

 

"Back that way." John waved vaguely behind them. 

 

Will considered the arc of rocks, but decided to sit and let his feet dangle over the edge. John followed suit nearby. They dug out the water and food Will had packed, their gazes never leaving the sky. Already, the horizon had begun to glow orange with the impending sunrise. Stars began to wink out. Will turned off his headlamp. 

 

The sun slowly, lazily oozed over the horizon, spilling like paint and bringing with it the familiar purple dusk. The dancing aurora could still be seen on the other side of the sky, as though the old red dwarf couldn't quite muster the strength to dispel it.

 

They ate and watched the landscape transform as light crept down the hillsides and pooled in the valley below Will's boots. Bioluminescence transformed into dark flora, which John assured him was glowing brightly in the infrared spectrum. The blob of moving lights resolved into a herd of large, four- or six-legged creatures with no distinguishable head and what looked like antlers jutting out of their backs.

 

"Wow," Will whispered. In some ways, that landscape was so like Earth's, but in others… it was completely alien. 

 

"Yeah," John agreed. He got to his feet and added, "I gotta take a leak."

 

"Uh." Will craned his neck to stare at the man he now hoped wasn't actually his father. "Then go?"

 

John's arms crossed as he looked over the cliff. "You want to?" he asked, jerking his chin at the open air. "With me?"

 

"You want me to pee off an alien cliff with you?"

 

"Can you think of a more bonding father-son experience?"

 

"Uh." Will glanced around, seeking something to help him respond, saw nothing but gorgeous landscape, and shrugged. "Anything but that, but... I can’t think of anything."

 

"Awesome. Then let’s do it."

 

John peeled off his gloves and tucked them in a back pocket. Will, still feeling awkwardly self conscious, carefully got to his feet. He mimicked his father's movements, pulling off his gloves and crumpling them into a side pocket. Then, nervous of the alien breeze, he unzipped his trousers and pulled himself out. 

 

"Ready?" John asked.

 

Will stared straight ahead at a dim hillside. "Um. Yeah."

 

"One, two, three, go!"

 

Will didn't hear anything but the distant hushing and some kind of low rumble. His bladder seemed unwilling to give anything up. Then he caught a flash of gold in the corner of his eye and he couldn't help a disbelieving laugh. What was he doing, standing there with his dad, his junk in hand, waiting to pee?

 

The ridiculous thought helped him relax just enough to send his own stuttering stream into the open Proxima Centauri air.

 

"Atta boy, Will," John called. "How many planets have you peed on now?"

 

"Five?"

 

"Most people just get to pee on one."

 

Will snickered, shaking his head. "Is this what you think about when you’re not dealing with a crisis?"

 

"There has to be some benefit to the trouble we've gone through. Look on the bright side, right?"

 

"I already have a bright side--ah!" As he spoke, Will turned his head to glance at Robot, only to find him looming very quietly and very close directly behind him. The proximity startled him into stepping back. The ground crumbled under his heel and he started falling, arms pinwheeling in a heart-stopping moment of abject terror.

 

Strong hands caught him around the chest, picked him up, and set him down away from the edge. 

 

Will didn't quite collapse, but he did have to brace himself on Robot's arm as he struggled to suck in shaky breaths. 

 

"Will?! Are you okay?" 

 

John's voice seemed to come from a great distance behind him. Will nodded, but couldn't quite speak. He squeezed his eyes shut, focused on the warm metal under his bare palm, the firm grip around his ribs, his own gradually slowing heartbeat. He was fine. Just another near death experience to add to the others. Just another helpless moment. 

 

Heat burned behind his eyelids. Will quickly blinked to chase it away and shook himself. He was fine. 

 

He was fine. 

 

"I'm fine," he croaked. He moved away, reluctantly pulling out of Robot's hold. Forced a smile and aimed it in the direction of his father. "All part of being a Robinson."

 

John wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "Would've been a great view on the way down, for about twenty seconds, anyway. I'm glad you didn't get to see it. What happened?" 

 

"Uh. I think Robot was curious about what we were doing, and I was just surprised. And careless." As usual. When would he stop being a stupid kid? 

 

Robot nudged Will in the chest, pulling his attention from annoyance at himself to Robot's brightly glowing face. What emotions swam in that complex constellation? Will was too caught up in his own fear and self-recrimination to read them. Was Robot just as irritated? Would he ever get tired of saving Will from danger?

 

Robot seemed to lean closer, his head tilting as though to look Will over. Will's face warmed and he wasn't sure why. Embarrassment? Worry? The same sick feeling from the previous night?

 

"Uh, Will?" John cleared his throat. "You might want to, uh, tuck yourself back in."

 

"Oh!" Cheeks aflame, Will jumped away from both John and Robot and fixed his trousers, ducking his head and trying to avoid their watchful gazes. 

 

"Maybe don't tell your mom about this. Or Judy."

 

"Yeah." Will straightened his clothes and pulled his gloves back onto his shaking hands. He would definitely keep this to himself. 

 

"You want to head home?"

 

"No!" Will yelped, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat and tried again, more calmly, "No. No, it's fine. It's finally light out. We should explore a little."

 

John smiled warmly; he'd probably been hoping to stay. "Then let's go. Let's find a new critter to name after us."

 

"Knowing us, we'll find a new kind of flesh eating disease or carnivorous plant."

 

"That's how I want to go, eaten alive by my name sake."

 

"Don't say that." Will tried to make it sound like a joke, but John's smile dropped immediately. 

 

"Sorry, Will. Too soon?"

 

"No, it's fine."

 

He was fine. 

 

"What's that over there?" he asked, pointing at a tall tower of rock jutting into the purple sky. In Proxima Centauri's dim light it looked orange, though it was probably limestone or granite. He wished he'd had the forethought to look up the geology of the area; then he'd know what it was, how old it was, how it had formed…

 

"Um. A mesa?" John said. 

 

"This is more like a mesa," Will countered, stamping a booted foot. "It might be a butte. I want to take a closer look."

 

"Yeah, sure. Lead the way. To your butte."

 

Will snorted and shook his head. "Now I know where Penny gets it…"

 

Will shouldered his pack, glanced at Robot, blushed for some reason, and watched his feet as he struck out toward the interesting formation, following more thin, dusty trails. John stayed close behind him and Robot forged his own path nearby. 

 

Proxima's natural environment quickly eased Will's perturbation. For a time he could forget the many near deaths, his confusion and reliance on Robot, his nervousness about meeting a neurologist and starting a new school. He pointed out large flying insects, barely visible against the dusky sky. He found Alpha Centauri A and B glowing on the horizon; the two distant stars more like a squinty-eyed face than suns. He spent some time investigating the black ferns in the light; finding the little nubs which responded with luminescence when touched at night. 

 

"Has anyone tried making a pigment out of this?" Will wondered, rubbing at one of the nubs. "How long does it retain its luminescent properties?"

 

"That question is above my pay grade. Why don't you ask your teachers tomorrow?"

 

"Yeah, okay." Will shared a smile with Robot as he straightened and brushed his hands on his thighs. "Glow in the dark paintings?"

 

Robot, who seemed just as interested in the things Will had pointed out, shrugged and nodded.

 

By the time they reached the crag that towered over the plateau, sweat had gathered under Will's straps and in the small of his back. Proxima Centauri's sun was dim, but with the solar winds constantly exciting the atmosphere, the planet was much warmer than Earth. If it hadn't been for the breeze, Will would've been drenched. 

 

They looked up at the butte, which must have risen a good thirty meters in a nearly sheer wall. Near the top of the towering formation, the rock had cracked, leaving a spacious fissure. Will lay his glove on the stone, rubbing away a thin layer of some kind of growth to discover pale grey granite beneath. "I wonder what's up there."

 

"We'd need to come back with climbing gear." John stepped back to look left and right through the ferns and fungus. "Unless there's a natural staircase on the other side."

 

"Yeah." 

 

Will backed away as well to get a better look at the fissure, already fascinated. He hadn't heard much about Proxima's geology; there was a lot to discover. 

 

Loud crunching of foliage made him turn in time to see Robot in his four-armed battle mode charging directly at him. Will froze in confusion, wondering what possible danger Robot could have spotted. Then Robot caught Will around the middle with one large lower arm and leapt at the wall. His other three hands and flexible, powerful feet found purchase, clawing into the stone. He swarmed up the tower with ease. Within moments, he was climbing into the fissure at the top and setting Will down on the sandy floor just inside. 

 

"Woah." Will looked around, steadying himself against the cracked wall. 

 

"Will!" John called from below. "You okay?"

 

Will leaned around Robot's immense form. "Yeah, we're good. Just exploring."

 

"Be careful!"

 

"Yeah." Will pulled back into the narrow, enclosed space, first trailing his fingers over Robot's arm. "Thanks. This is really cool."

 

Robot caught his hand, covering it with one of his own. He leaned down and, though his configuration had changed, his glowing face was the same; blue-white stars streaming, rings forming. Three sets of nimble claws brushed lightly over Will's shoulders and down his back, barely felt through his jacket. Will shivered despite the heat. In that mode, Robot was huge and alien--not frightening, but… so powerful that Will couldn’t help but feel small. He didn’t know if he liked the feeling. It tied into the confusion that had begun knotting up in his gut since they’d arrived on their new planet and things had somehow changed between them. 

 

But he didn’t… dis like it.

 

Just as he didn’t dislike the firm grip holding his trembling hand in place, the careful claws that slid under the edge of his jacket and found his hip, the cool caress of metal in his hair, the large palm gently holding the small of his back. 

 

Robot’s expression throbbed brightly. He played another aurora across his face.

 

Will stepped in, entranced, returning to that hot, feverish state from the previous night. I guess… I don't have to worry about him… being annoyed at me.

 

He reached up to touch Robot’s face--something he’d never dared to do before--and Robot abruptly pulled away, leaving Will cold. For a moment, Will thought he’d done something wrong, but Robot swivelled toward the other end of the fissure, his superior hands lifting offensively and his inferior hands gripping Will and pushing him to stand behind his own hulking form.

 

Only then did Will notice the rustling that Robot must have heard. Something was moving.

 

Immediately, Will's blood froze, his mind leaping to the thought that something in there was about to try to kill him. He peered around Robot’s waist, waiting for something deadly to appear.

 

When nothing did, he peered closer, squinting into the gloom. He saw only a rough, bulky shape on the ground. He pulled out his headlamp, switched it on to full, and shone the beam over the shape. 

 

It resolved into a mass of fern leaves and mud, almost as tall as him and large enough to cover the width of the fissure. The rustling sound came from within. 

 

"It's a nest!" Will whispered excitedly, fear instantly replaced with excitement. He tugged on Robot's arm. "Let's see what's inside."

 

He crept quietly closer, practically pushing Robot forward as Robot refused to let him get in front. 

 

Will's light eventually revealed a few squirming, leathery shapes deep within the nest. Without getting too close, he raised his comm to record the figures in the nest. "Is this a new species of Proxima Centauri animal? Should we name it after Robot, who got us up here?"

 

Something slammed against the rock overhead. 

 

A huge, headless creature had landed above them. Its gleaming black wings and legs bridged the fissure, blocking out the sky. It didn’t roar or growl, but the scrabble of its claws and a bizarre slurping noise were absolutely terrifying. 

 

Robot raised his palm, laser ready. 

 

"No!" Will jumped and caught his arm. "Don't shoot it. It's just protecting its nest. Come on!"

 

He pulled hard, and Robot slowly stepped backward. 

 

The creature oozed toward them, its many legs skittering, its wings folding, some kind of orifice cracking open on its belly. 

 

Will reached the edge and held up his arms for Robot to gather him up. Robot claimed him and stepped off the edge. They dropped and Will's stomach lurched, lurching again when Robot dug into the stone. They slid bumpily down and hit the ground hard, though Robot shielded Will from the worst of it. 

 

John immediately jogged over. "You all right?"

 

Will peered upward and saw a dark shape detach from the formation and disappear against the purple sky. "We should probably go," he said. 

 

"What did you find?"

 

"I'll show you once we're back in the Chariot."

 

Robot didn't stray far during their hike back to the Chariot, and only returned to his humanoid configuration once the rear door opened for him to climb in. 

 

Will, his skin still prickling with a sense of danger, slid into the passenger side and leaned forward to peer up at the sky through the window. A few scraps of fiery orange cloud crept by overhead, but there was no sign of the creature. He leaned back and released a long breath. 

 

"You going to tell me what you saw?"

 

Will pulled up the video on his comm and held his arm out so John could watch it.

 

"Wow, no one's gotten such a close shot of one of those things, and you got the young, too."

 

"What is it? Is it dangerous?"

 

"I don't think they know much about them yet, but as far as I know they keep to themselves. I'll introduce you to the head exobiologist--they'll want to see this." John gave one of approving smiles. "Good call on not shooting it. Better to bring back a video than a body." He twisted to regard Robot. "Good find. And thanks for getting back safe." He cleared his throat and set the Chariot's map and settings. "Let's head home."



Chapter Text

Six

 

John stared straight ahead, driving in the dusk. He didn't talk much, but music played in the background, giving Robot's fine vibration sensors something to puzzle over. 

 

The angles of John's profile were similar, but different from the angles Robot truly wanted to see. The difference between expectation and reality played a wistful error code through his circuits, quickly followed by recollections of the reason he found himself in the Chariot, moving steadily further from--

 

"Will?"

 

Will blinked and realized he'd been staring at his mother's profile for some time. She frowned in gentle concern. 

 

"Um." He cleared his throat and turned to Dr Choi where she sat behind a sleek glass computer stand. "I'm sorry. Pardon?"

 

"Can you describe these visions?"

 

He shrugged. "I don't… know how. Sometimes I see or feel things. Sometimes I know them. Sometimes I think I'm just imagining it."

 

Dr Choi nodded once, giving no indication of whether he had provided a satisfactory response. She wore a blue colony medical uniform, which made him uncomfortable to begin with--he didn’t need a doctor--and her cool demeanor just made it worse. "I'd like to know more about what you experience. Before our next appointment, I would appreciate it if you could record your thoughts after one of these episodes."

 

"I'll try."

 

Another nod. "And your mother mentioned that you get migraines?"

 

"Sometimes."

 

She must have noticed his guardedness, for she added, "Migraines aren't typically indicative of underlying neurological disorders. They're quite common in adolescents, so you don't necessarily need to worry." With a metal-tipped finger, she flicked something from her computer surface to the open air in front of Will--it looked like a list. "I'm going to program your comm with something called a subject diary. It will alert you every evening to answer five questions about your health. It should just take a few minutes."

 

"And then what?"

 

Dr Choi didn't smile, but she did acknowledge Will's question with a dip of her small chin. "This is just a baseline. We don't know how you and the alien are connected. We don't know what effects it may have on you. What we want to avoid is… finding out too late that something is going wrong. Neurological disease can be insidious, with symptoms that slowly get worse over time. These questions will tell us what is normal for you, so that we'll know when your condition stops being normal."

 

"I know what a baseline is," Will said quietly, glaring at a colour-saturated picture of a beehive on the far wall.

 

Though he understood his parents' concerns and the concepts and the reasoning behind his meeting with Dr Choi, the words "alien", "disease", and "condition" made him flinch and bristle. Knowing that Robot was currently on his way to a distant construction site just increased his unease, making it difficult not to snap at Dr Choi.

 

"That's good. Would you also assent to a baseline MRI?"

 

"No."

 

Dr Choi's mouth pinched, but to her credit she didn't try to convince him.

 

"Why is it called a subject diary? I'm not your subject."

 

"Because I'm collecting your information. For now, this information will only be used to ensure your health and wellness. In the future, should you consent to it, that information may be used to further our understanding of the alien's species and our interactions with them. "

 

She flicked a new document up and passed him a stylus. "This is the assent form for collection of your data." She did the same with Maureen. "This is the parental permission form. Please read it carefully and ask me or my colleagues any questions you might have. "

 

"I've read it already," Maureen said. She glanced at Will as she signed the holographic document with the stylus. "This is really just a formality. As Dr Choi said, this information is only going to be collected and used for your health, not for research. Unless you consent to it later."

 

"Yeah. Okay." Will skimmed over his form, made sure the requirements were exactly as Dr Choi described, and signed the bottom.

 

"Thank you." Dr Choi flicked both forms back to her computer. "Can I ask a few more questions? Then we'll schedule another meeting in a month to see if anything has changed and to ensure the diary is working for you."

 

"Okay."

 

"Good." Dr Choi's demeanor warmed somewhat, almost a smile. "Tell me more about your connection with the alien. Is there any particular physical sensation associated with it?"

 

Will's gaze shot to the image on Dr Choi's wall--it had since shifted into the Pillars of Creation as viewed from Earth. He fidgeted with the loose fabric around his knees--the colony issued pants didn't quite fit right. Did the people who viewed the Pillars through the first powerful telescopes ever think about traveling to other planets? Did they ever think that being on a new planet meant clothes that didn't fit and awkward questions from neurologists?

 

"Will?" Maureen prompted. "Are you all right?"

 

"Yes," he blurted hurriedly, his face warming. "Yeah. I'm fine. It's just… there's not a--a simple answer. And I, uh, I really want to get to school."

 

A fond crinkle replaced the concerned tension around Maureen's eyes. "Yes, of course. We should go. I did promise that this would just take a few minutes." She stood and said to Dr Choi, "Thank you for meeting with us."

 

"Of course. I look forward to our next appointment." Dr Choi stood as well and reached out a hand.

 

It took Will a moment to realize she was holding it out to him. He shot to his feet, making her desk shudder when his thigh banged into the edge. He carefully took her dry hand in his, startled to notice that it fit inside his own. Dr Choi's immaculate black hair only came to his nose. Despite the size difference, he had the vague impression that she was looking down at him. Not that she thought poorly of him, but that she was… analyzing him. 

 

"Think of a way to describe those sensations for our next appointment as well. Your first homework assignment."

 

Will laughed nervously and stepped away. "I'll try."

 

"And remember. Nothing you enter into your diary will mean something's wrong. We just need to know what's normal. So be honest. For your own sake, for your family's."

 

"Yeah." Maybe after a few months of no changes, everyone would settle down about it. Maybe. 

 

**

 

Less than an hour later, the sun had set and Will stood in the harsh artificial light in front of his new school, wondering what he was about to walk into. After two years with no formal schooling, would he be behind everyone else? Would he be sent for remedial classes?

 

"We're supposed to see the guidance counselor first," Maureen said, standing beside him and reviewing her comm. "Then it looks like you'll go straight to lunch. Not bad for a first day."

 

"I'll go by myself," Will said. He shrugged his messenger bag a little higher on his shoulder. "I know you're busy."

 

"Oh. Are you sure? I'm never too busy for you."

 

"Yeah. I… want to."

 

"Sure. I understand. Just call if you need anything, okay?"

 

"Yeah."

 

Maureen's smile looked strained. She pulled her short, dun jacket close, her hands clenching as though she was trying to keep them busy. "Have a great day, Will. I hope you enjoy your new school."

 

"Thanks. You, too. I mean, you have a good day, too." He scuffed his boot on the concrete walkway and, realizing that his mom wasn't going to leave first, he turned away and trudged to the school's double doors. 

 

Stepping through those doors was like stepping back in time. Although the school looked different--resin printed walls instead of painted cinder block, screens instead of posters, LEDs instead of fluorescent lights--the smell of hundreds of people and of cafeteria food, the echo of muffled voices down long corridors, and the gleam of steel locker doors was so familiar that he almost expected to blink and be eleven again. 

 

His chest squeezed as he remembered his last day of school on Earth, saying goodbye to his friends and teachers, knowing that he would never see them again, that they were doomed to live on that dying planet…

 

He stopped in the large atrium just inside the doors, palm pressed against his stomach, staring at a display of the Alpha Centauri system on the far wall as he tried to force away those unwanted thoughts and memories. 

 

I wish you were here , he thought toward Robot. I'm always… stronger… when you're with me. 

 

He didn't feel anything. None of the physical sensations Dr Choi had asked about. But that morning Robot had accepted a long hug from Will, practically picking him up off his feet. Will tried to remember that feeling of safety and care, and drape it over his skin like a protective layer.

 

Then, somewhat bolstered, he brought up a map of the school in his mind's eye and headed for the administrative offices, only a little ways down one of the three corridors branching off the atrium. The offices were all glass-walled. When Will came to a door labelled "Lightfoot, Guidance Counselor," the person behind the desk inside smiled and waved him in.

 

"Will Robinson," they said when the door slid aside. With large, energetic movements, they leapt to their feet and swooped around the desk to pump his hand in a handshake. In a warm, low voice, they added, "I am very glad to meet you at last." A bright smile creased their face, turning up the corners of their dark eyes. Wearing a vibrant blue knee-length tunic and armfuls of bangles, their long straight hair bound in a ponytail and dyed green, Lightfoot was not what Will had expected. 

 

"Uh. Me, too," he said, returning the handshake weakly. "Miz...ster… Lightfoot?" He couldn't figure out if he was talking to a man or woman. 

 

"Just Lightfoot," they said unhelpfully. They indicated one of two padded white chairs in front of the desk. "Please, have a seat."

 

Will perched gingerly, holding his bag on his knees. 

 

Lightfoot took the other chair and leaned back comfortably, crossing their legs. They triggered something on their desk that frosted the glass walls before lacing their long fingers together. "First, welcome to Alpha Centauri. You made it."

 

Will nodded. 

 

"I hear it wasn't an easy trip."

 

Will nodded again. 

 

"You've probably heard this before, but if anything happened during your trip--or before, or after--that you feel like talking about, well, I'm legally required to maintain confidentiality. So I'm a decent choice if you need to get something off your chest." Lightfoot's smile became a little rueful. "Just putting that out there."

 

"Thanks. I'll keep that in mind." 

 

"So." Lightfoot collected a tablet from their desk. "You took some tests for me while you were in quarantine and filled out a placement questionnaire."

 

Will clutched his bag nervously. Here it came. He was going to be in the class for stupid colonists. 

 

"It looks like you're interested in robotics, exobiology, and… sociology?"

 

At Lightfoot's lifted brow, Will nodded. 

 

"Different from the records received from the Resolute. You were initially interested in geology?"

 

"My interests changed."

 

"As they do. Mine change frequently. Just this morning I was thinking that I'd make a better chef than counselor." Lightfoot shrugged a shoulder. "Well, before I run off to perfect my braised mycopoda recipe, I developed a class list to support your interests and fit your proficiency profile." They passed the tablet over. "You have an impressive knowledge base in many areas already. You could probably teach physics, math, geology, and several units of biology. But there are a few entirely understandable gaps, namely in history and social and language arts. So here's what I propose. I want to put you in introductory human studies, as well as put you into advanced physics, engineering, and biology. And then I want you to choose something completely different. For balance. And in a few weeks we'll meet to see how you're getting on and I'll give you an idea of the roles you can work toward."

 

"Roles?"

 

"The education system here is structured a little differently than on Earth. Colony life is difficult. Our survival depends on quickly developing competencies in our young workers. You pick a type of role, or you get placed, and your classes develop your abilities to fill that role." Lightfoot waved a hand dismissively. "You don't have to pick a role until you're sixteen, and it's not entirely restrictive. But it does prescribe a particular curriculum of classes. So these are the classes that best fit your current interests. And later we'll go over the possible roles that you can prepare for."

 

"Oh." Will looked over the class schedule blankly. He was still surprised to find out that he'd done well in most of the tests, though he probably shouldn't have been. His parents and Judy had rigorously encouraged him to study whenever they weren't actively fighting for their lives, they’d involved him in the decision making and problem solving, and he had learned more than his fair share of new things on his own. 

 

The classes looked decent enough, and he found himself smiling at the thought of finally being able to accomplish something straightforward and well-defined. Penny may tease him for it, but he liked being in class where things were simple, easy, and he was rewarded just for learning and following directions. 

 

"You look happy," Lightfoot said. "Do those classes look like something you'll enjoy?"

 

"Yeah. It's just nice to do something normal. For a change."

 

"Any thoughts on your elective? Music? Art?"

 

"Art!" Will exclaimed. "Definitely art." 

 

"Really? I had no idea you were interested." 

 

"My… my friend. Is an artist. I can show him what I learn. "

 

"What a gracious gesture. There are adult classes that your friend can attend, though."

 

Will fought a smile, imagining Robot roaming those halls. "He works a lot. Maybe one day."

 

Lightfoot took the tablet from Will and reviewed the selections. "You're happy with your schedule? I'll go ahead and confirm."

 

"Yes. Thanks."

 

"And we're done." Lightfoot set the tablet aside. "I've sent your schedule to you and your parents. And I've arranged for a guide to give you the tour--he's in a few of your classes. Do you have any questions before you go?"

 

"No."

 

"Great. It was a pleasure to meet you, Will. If you need anything, have any questions, want to know how my braised mycopoda turns out, you're always welcome here." Lightfoot stood and offered a hand. Will wiped his own sweaty palm before taking it and letting Lightfoot pull him to his feet. "I hope you enjoy your time here."

 

Lightfoot reached over and triggered the frosted glass to clear, revealing an older boy lounging against the wall in the corridor outside. He lifted a hand in a wave and Lightfoot gestured for him to enter. 

 

Will blinked. The boy looked familiar--short, almost black hair in a lazy, spiky style, high cheekbones, sharp jaw, ears that stuck out a bit, one of them pierced by three silver studs. One black brow lifted and the corner of his mouth quirked as he met Will's curious gaze through the glass. When the door slid open and he stepped in, that quirk became an easy grin. 

 

"Hey," he said. His amber eyes flicked down and up. " The Will Robinson. How's it going?"

 

The slight British accent, too, was familiar, and Will's stomach started to drop. He did his own once-over, taking in all of the disturbing details.

 

The boy's clothes--all of them hand made, the sleeveless style completely Centauri as worn by someone who had lived in the colony for many years.

 

The smudges around his eyes, as though something had happened recently to trouble his sleep…

 

"I'm Gideon," the boy continued. "Gideon--"

 

"Adler," Will finished softly.

 

A ringing in his ears drowned out Gideon's surprised agreement. He saw again Ben's figure disappearing into the storm with Scarecrow's ravaged body, the flash and deafening crack, the red ovals of furious robots burning in the gloom. He felt again the terror and helplessness, made worse with the knowledge that Robot was captured and being tortured because Will couldn't come up with a good enough plan… by adults who were in authority. People who should have been good and trustworthy. 

 

His own voice came back to him, shouting "Mayday, mayday!" into radio silence, desperate for anyone to help him...

 

"Will? Will?" Lightfoot touched his shoulder. "Are you okay?"

 

Will jumped back, nearly tripping over his chair. He couldn't breathe. He felt sick, shaking. He couldn't take his eyes off Gideon's face, seeing Ben Adler's worried, serious eyes staring back at him. Ben had been one of the only adults to take him seriously, to trust him--Will had respected him, maybe even… liked him.

 

But he'd done terrible things to Scarecrow, and his technology had hurt Robot, and then he'd made the ultimate sacrifice to save Scarecrow. Leaving Will frightened, alone, confused...

 

"I--" he croaked, backing away. His heart hammered in his ears. Shadows licked at the edges of his vision. 

 

Will stumbled into the corridor, not quite knowing how he got there. He glanced up and down, spotted a toilet sign, and hurried toward it.

 

The moment he entered the washroom, his breakfast decided to abandon ship. He made it to the toilet only by covering his mouth, and heaved everything out. 

 

Some minutes later, Will rinsed his face in the sink and pushed his damp hair back. He met his own gaze only briefly, hating the lost, haunted look. He'd made it. They'd made it. He shouldn't still be afraid…

 

Eyes closed , he pictured Robot, probably busy lifting things with his immensely powerful, but gentle hands. I wish you were here. 

 

He felt a question. Maybe. Or maybe it was wishful thinking. 

 

I'm okay. Everything I'm afraid of is inside me. You can't protect me from my memories. 

 

Muffled voices beyond the door brought his head up, reminding him of where he was. Proxima Centauri. School. The washroom.

 

He took a deep breath. 

 

And another.

 

He could do this. He was fine. 

 

When he pushed through the door, he flinched to see Gideon Adler leaning against the wall outside, hands laced behind his head and talking with a girl, that easy grin playing over his face. That must have been his mother's smile; Ben had looked perpetually worried. 

 

"Hey," Gideon said, straightening when he spotted Will. "You okay?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"We need to call a custodian?" 

 

"No."

 

Gideon nodded to the girl. "I guess you can go in, then."

 

Will moved away to let her hurry past him, and slumped against the wall, rubbing his eyes. "Sorry," he murmured. 

 

"Don't be. This is a new planet. It takes a while for your body to adjust."

 

"Yeah, I guess." Will stared at the floor.

 

"Here." His messenger bag entered his line of sight.

 

"Thanks." Will gingerly accepted it, hugging the strap as he shrugged it onto his shoulder. 

 

"Do you need to call someone?"

 

"No. No, I'm fine now."

 

"Well. How about we start the tour? Sometimes walking helps."

 

"Okay."

 

"Hey." Will jumped when Gideon touched his arm. He met that concerned half smile and his chest ached from memories. "You sure you don't want to go home? I'll be here tomorrow. It's just that you don't look so good." He laughed a little and scratched his cheek. "I mean. You look fine, but like you might need to run to the toilet again at any minute."

 

As Gideon talked, he reminded Will of Ben less and less. Ben had been weighed down, almost crushed, by what he'd done to Scarecrow and what he'd become. Gideon carried none of that burden. He was open, cool, and just… nice. A little bit like Don. Like if Ben and Don made some kind of hybrid.

 

Will forced a weak smile. He could do this. If he ran away now, who could say if next time wouldn't be so much worse?

 

He opened his mouth. He remembered Ben’s request to tell his sons that he’d died doing something good. He wanted to just blurt it out. “I was with your father when he died. He was a hero in the end.”

 

But he couldn’t.

 

"I feel fine now. Thank you. Lead the way. Gideon."

 

**

 

No one had told Gideon that Will Robinson-- the Will Robinson--was cute. Very cute. One might even say criminally cute. Bad enough that he was a hero, intelligent (based on his class schedule, anyway), and could tame fucking robot aliens, but he was so damn adorable that Gideon was having trouble keeping his eyes to himself. 

 

Why hadn't Les warned him? Les had mentioned meeting Will and his robot--or rather bragged about it. He'd described the moment when Officer Green just about pissed herself as Will calmly told her that if she didn't let him go the robot would rip her arms off. But he had said nothing about Will Robinson's appearance. Asshole.

 

Even recently sick, Will looked good, the pallor of his skin bringing out the smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks. His damp hair was pushed away from his face and his full lips were reddened and parted with his breaths. His expression seemed distant, a little bit distracted, like his mind was constantly somewhere else. Probably thinking about the next way he was going to save the colony or forge an alliance with a hostile alien species. The kid was on another level. 

 

But it doesn't hurt to look , Gideon told himself as they walked together toward the science wing. He let Will get a little ahead of him so he could stealthily check him out. Unfortunately, despite being a celebrity, he was still wearing basic colony issue clothing, which always fit on the baggy side. Gideon couldn't tell much about his shape. Looks a little scrawny, but he's got to be around my age--he's in some of my classes and he's almost as tall as I am. 

 

"This is our lab," Gideon said, stopping by a closed door. A student inside gave him a curious frown, as though to say, "Why the hell aren't you in class?" Gideon jabbed a thumb at Will and mouthed, "Will fucking Robinson."

 

"Physics lab?" Will asked, leaning close to peer in at the equations on the main monitor. "You're in physics, too?"

 

Gideon drew in a deep breath before he could stop himself. Will smelled fresh and clean, and maybe a tiny bit sick, which didn't put Gideon off at all--if anything it made Gideon more interested, because, shit, if Will could get sick then he was as human as the rest of them, and Gideon might have a chance. 

 

"Yeah," Gideon said tightly, and had to clear his throat. "Yeah, we share a few classes. That's why Lightfoot asked me to show you around. We've got physics, engineering, biology, and physical."

 

"Great." A seemingly rare smile brightened Will's face. Then it faded, replaced by a tiny, uncomfortable beetling of his brows. "So. Lightfoot… is…?"

 

Gideon shook his head, already knowing where Will was going with the question. "No one knows. Lightfoot is just… themself."

 

"Ah. Okay." Will nodded at the equation and three graphs on the monitor. "What are we learning? That looks like a Fourier series."

 

"Yeah, we're doing sound waves now." Gideon smirked. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you already know what that is. Your mom practically built the Resolute."

 

"Only the life support. Mostly. Anyway. We were alone a lot. I didn't have much else to do but study." A shadow passed over his expression. 

 

"Don't worry, we'll get you so busy that you won't have time to study. You'll be just as dumb as the rest of us." Gideon slung an arm around Will's shoulders, enjoying the feel of the slightly smaller, angular body against his own, and guided him away from the door. When Will didn't object to the physical contact, Gideon gave himself a smug mental high five. "Let's check out engineering."

 

Gideon rambled about their school as he led Will around. After a few minutes, Will's colour returned, revealing a delicate complexion that probably blushed easily. He smiled more and asked a few questions about their classes, and Gideon congratulated himself on putting his new acquaintance at ease. 

 

But when do I start asking the questions? he wondered, giving Will a side eye. There was a reason he'd eagerly accepted the job, and it wasn't just the chance to get close to a genuine hero.

 

A low, pleasant tune played from their comms as they strode down the human studies corridor where Will would be taking a rudimentary Earth history class. 

 

"That's lunch," Gideon explained when Will frowned at their wrists. "Do you have plans, or do you want to come to the caf with me?"

 

"Sure. I don't have plans."

 

Gideon's inner self pumped a fist. "Awesome. Let's beat the rush." 

 

Gideon led them into the large, well-lit cafeteria. Tall windows revealed the darkness of Proxima Centauri, but tiny LEDs embedded in the glass created waves of colour-changing light to ease the discomfort of those huge obsidian rectangles.

 

"Wow," Will breathed. "This is way nicer than the Resolute."

 

Gideon shrugged. He barely remembered the Resolute--just long metal corridors and a memory of trying to follow his father to the engine room and being frightened by something… Probably just shadows.

 

He shook the thought away and pulled himself back to the present. "I guess so," he said. After seven years of attending the same school, the cafeteria didn't look like much. Padded seating, a few different kinds of tables, some potted plants, some monitors, kitchen and canteen taking up most of one wall--nothing special. "What was your school like on Earth?"

 

"Crowded. The cafeteria had tiny windows like they thought we'd try to escape, so it was kind of claustrophobic. And everything was old. And my mom thought the school food wasn't very good, so I had to bring my lunches. I hated seeing everyone else eating pizza when I had tabbouleh."

 

Gideon's brows rose as Will talked. And the kid could talk. Gideon hadn't expected it based on how quiet he'd been at first, but he could actually be quite chatty once he'd warmed up. 

 

"I don't even know what tabbouleh is," Gideon admitted. 

 

"It's not bad. Unless everyone around you is eating pizza."

 

Gideon laughed, enchanted by the way Will's face scrunched up. "Well, come on, let's see if you like the food here."

 

Other students had begun filtering in. Gideon and Will joined the line to get their lunch trays, Gideon shamelessly keeping close so no one would step between them. 

 

"Most of it’s the usual soy-based or hot house food," Gideon warned. "But we've started to get real food, with meat and stuff. Like on the old Earth food triangle." Gideon etched a triangle in the air. 

 

"Pyramid," Will corrected with a half smile. "They changed that after you left. It was completely wrong. My sister made a thesis about it." His eyes narrowed. "What do you remember from Earth? How old were you when you left?"

 

"Nine. I remember the sun. Snow. Our kitchen. My dad--" Gideon stuttered, recent grief briefly locking his jaw. He looked away, swallowed, worked his jaw back and forth, and continued. "I was always trying to get into my dad's lab, so I remember that door really well. He was all about robots and artificial intelligence and machine learning. Probably why I'm so into it. He ignored us to work on it, so it must have been something interesting."

 

Will didn't reply, so Gideon forced himself to look at him. He hadn't meant to say that last part. He didn't want to come off as a whiny brat. He half-expected Will to be regarding him with distaste--after all, it was rumoured that Will and his family had been through hell and dragged hundreds of colonists with them out the other side, and you didn't see him complaining. 

 

Instead, Will had gone pale, almost grey, again, with an expression of glossy-eyed anguish that shocked Gideon out of his own bitterness. 

 

"Hey, are you okay? Sorry if that got a bit, uh, dark?" Maybe he was going to be sick again? Sick from Gideon's pathetic whining?

 

"Yeah," Will said throatily. "And it's okay. I spent the last year staring into the blackness of space. You can't be too dark for me."

 

Is this what love feels like? Gideon wondered as his heart battered at his ribs in a bid to escape and just rub itself all over Gideon's newest crush like a deranged puppy.

 

"Um. Should we…?" Will nodded at something behind Gideon. 

 

Gideon blinked and turned to see the line ahead of them mostly gone and annoyed students behind them. "Oh! Yeah. Let's."

 

Gideon helped himself to some kind of breaded meat strips while Will took something vegetarian--maybe he was so used to ship food that he preferred it? They picked one of the smaller tables, partially concealed by a fern, and Gideon hoped no one would join them. 

 

"Is this one of the bioluminescent ones?" Will asked, poking the fern. 

 

"Yes?" Gideon had never thought about it, the potted plants were just more scenery. "Everything on this planet has lights on it."

 

"Almost everything," Will murmured. "Robot and I ran into something yesterday that wasn't glowing."

 

Gideon tried not to sound too interested in the mention of Will's alien protector. "Oh? What was it?"

 

Will flashed a smile. He stood, came to Gideon's side of the table, and bumped him over. The sudden warmth of his body against Gideon's thigh just about made Gideon stop breathing. 

 

"Watch this, " Will said, holding out his comm. "Have you seen one of these before?"

 

A hand like yours? Gideon thought inanely. I've seen them, but they weren't as nice. He gingerly held Will's wrist on either side of his comm, almost shaking, and tried to focus on the small screen and not the smooth skin under his fingertips. 

 

The video played. Gideon's brows rose once again, both from surprise and, he had to admit, a little bit of awe. No one had gotten that close to one of those flying creatures, and definitely not their nests. But what truly amazed him were the flashes of Will's robot--it gave the impression of hugeness and danger, with its size and clawed hands and glowing, enigmatic face. Despite that danger, it obeyed Will. He tugged on its arm, utterly fearless, and it listened. 

 

"That. Is. Fucking. Insane." Gideon said after he'd watched it through twice. He gazed at Will admiringly. 

 

Colour stained Will's cheeks--he did blush easily. "Thanks. It was Robot who got us up there. I just held the camera."

 

"Where was that?"

 

"The ridge overlooking the river. There's a kind of rock tower jutting up from it? We climbed to the top."

 

"You climbed Proxima's Wang?!" Gideon yelped. He started laughing. "Shit. Of course you did."

 

"Well. Robot climbed it. He just brought me along." Will made a face. "Proxima's Wang? Did my dad name it?"

 

"Someone in the second wave did," Gideon explained, still snickering. "One of the kids, of course. I don't remember who."

 

" There you are!" exclaimed a voice, making Gideon groan inwardly. There went his one on one with Will…

 

Leslie Adler, Gideon's twin and sometimes-nemesis, slid onto the bench across from Will and Gideon, his bestie Pavi close behind him. Les and Gideon didn't look much alike--Les took after their mom with his darker complexion and rounder face--but that shit-eating grin was shared between them and Gideon hated seeing it on him. 

 

"Hey again , Will," Les said. "Good to see you, bro. Gid is keeping you hidden away." He poked a fork at the ferns. 

 

"Hey, Les," Will said shyly. "Pavi. Sorry for what happened--"

 

"Are you kidding? You and Robot were wronged . I don't know why all those idiots were so scared. Robot is lit!"

 

"I love him!" Pavi agreed. "He was so sweet. Did you ever get him some paints?"

 

"Sweet?" Gideon echoed, remembering the robot's terrifying appearance in Will's video. 

 

"No," Will said sadly. To Gideon, he explained, "Robot likes to paint. We were trying to get him some supplies, but the store owner ran away and security kicked us out."

 

"No shit." Gideon nodded at Les. "Mom used to paint, didn't she? Maybe she still has some stuff?"

 

"Maybe?"

 

"Wait, are you brothers ?" Will glanced between them, wide-eyed. 

 

"Fraternal twins," Gideon said, amused by Will's surprise. "I know. We don't look alike."

 

"Gid's the unlucky one," Les said. "He took after dad. Those ears , bro!"

 

Gideon threw a slice of hot house apple at Les, who snickered and ate it. 

 

"Whatever," he muttered. He couldn't come up with a clever retort, not when his dad was involved. The news had come too recently; whenever he thought of his dad, all of his resentment and anger and loss fisted in his chest and he couldn't fit anything around it. 

 

"Your ears aren't that big," Will said, giving a half smile. "And I like your earrings."

 

"Piercings," Gideon corrected. "Chicks and Lightfoot wear earrings. And thanks." Despite the misnomer, Will's kind words touched Gideon. Though he found the whole package almost too good to be true: cute, smart, kind, adventurous, in command of a powerful alien robot… Gideon was going to have to be careful. Eyes on the prize, Gid , he scolded himself. You need answers, not a boyfriend. 

 

… Unless you can have both. That would work, too. 

 

"So." Gideon stabbed his last piece of breaded meat. "Painting supplies. I will look into it."

 

"Great, thanks. He really needs to stop painting with condiments…" Will's gaze unfocused and he looked toward the far wall. Then he blinked and snapped back to Gideon. "I need to go make a call," he said softly. "Is there somewhere I can go that's a little more private?"

 

My bedroom, suggested Gideon's libido.

 

"There's a courtyard in the middle of the school," Pavi suggested. "It's like a little park. Not exactly private, but if you talk quietly it's pretty good."

 

"I'll show you." Gideon shoved the last of his lunch into his face and followed Will as he stood. 

 

"You gonna eat that, bro?" Les asked, pointing at Will's plate. Will had apparently started with dessert and worked his way backwards through his meal, leaving a dish of vegetables and a sad pile of noodles. 

 

"Uh. No?"

 

"Sweet." Les pulled Will's tray toward himself.

 

"Be careful," Gideon warned, stealing a few veggie sticks for himself, all too aware that Will had touched them. "Once you feed Les, he'll keep coming back for more." 

 

Les rolled his eyes and then froze. He looked from Gideon, to Will, and back again, realization crawling over his face like Proxima's slow sunrise. Then he burst into laughter. 

 

Gideon groaned. Fucker was way too observant for his own good. 

 

"It's Gid you have to worry about, bro," Les sniggered. "You don't even have to feed him." He held up a finger, glanced slyly at Gideon, and said to Will, "Pav and I'll probably be in a few of your classes, too. So don't worry about being the youngest. We've got your back. Thirteen isn't that young, anyway."

 

Gideon would've choked if he'd still been eating. Thirteen? He'd thought fifteen, for sure…

 

"Thanks," Will said, understandably confused. "But it's okay. I'm almost fourteen."

 

"He's almost fourteen," repeated Gideon in a hiss at his good-for-nothing brother who lived for nothing but to dash Gideon's hopes and dreams. "Come on, Will, " he continued glumly. "We'll find you a secluded bench or something."

 

They passed through the much busier cafeteria and corridors, Gideon nodding at friends and acquaintances but never stopping. When the doors to the courtyard opened before them, Gideon inhaled the warm Proxima night and gestured for Will to precede him. Even knowing his age, he couldn't help but check him out again. 

 

Fourteen, he reminded himself. I can work with fourteen. Two years apart isn't that bad. Maybe I'd be his first . A little thrill in his gut told him just how much he liked that idea. 

 

"This is nice," Will said, stepping onto the stone path that led into the little patch of ferns and fungus. "Thanks for bringing me. I'll see you in class?"

 

Shit, he just dismissed you. Gideon tried not to take it personally. Maybe Will had to check in with one of the other Robinsons. 

 

"Yeah. Call me if you need anything." Gideon tapped his own comm and then felt like an idiot. Did he think Will would forget what they were for?

 

"Thanks." Will gave one of his infrequent smiles and turned away. 

 

Gideon almost followed, desperately wanting to be close to him and know who he was calling. Then he shook his head. There'd be plenty of time to get close, to find out what he needed to know, to get what he wanted.

Chapter Text

Seven

 

"They're nice," Will murmured. Arms crossed, he held his comm close to his face so he wouldn't need to speak loudly. "I just… I don't know what to say to them. How to tell them. It's eating at me."

 

Within the quiet from the other end of the call, Will heard the faint grind of metal on metal, a low hum, a short pattern of clicks. In his mind's eye, he could see a blue white swirl.

 

"It means that I'm so worried about it that the emotion is experienced physically. In my stomach. As if something is gnawing on me." Will leaned his head over the back of his bench. He stared at the black sky past the web of LEDs illuminating the courtyard. He didn't want to think about Gideon anymore, or the way his usually warm, amused expression occasionally hardened into something sad. "How are you doing with Dad? Everything okay?"

 

He thought he saw movement against the darkness and light above him. It gave him the impression of floodlights and a deep pit. He felt very little across their connection otherwise, so could only assume the day had been uninteresting. 

 

"Hey, is that Will?" came John's faint voice across the comm. "How's your first day going, son?"

 

"Fine," Will said. He wasn't ready to tell anyone but Robot about the details of Ben's death, meeting his sons, and how it tore at him. "You?"

 

"It's going great. There've been so few problems that I'm getting worried. Things aren't supposed to go this smooth when I'm involved."

 

"Give it time."

 

John chuckled. "Thanks for the confidence. Come on, Robinson, we're back on the clock."

 

It took a moment for Will to realize John was talking to Robot. "Robinson." It must have been how John referred to Robot while at the work site. 

 

"Bye, Robinson," Will said, smiling to keep the sadness from his voice. The distance yawned between them. 

 

The quiet from the other end could have echoed his melancholy, or Will could have been imagining it. The connection between himself and Robot, usually a source of fascination and joy for him, could be frustratingly inconsistent. He could never rely on it. Trust in it. 

 

He ended the call before the silence dragged on and rubbed the spot between his eyes where an ache was beginning to build. 

 

"Hey, there you are."

 

Will smothered a groan at the familiar, lightly accented voice and the way it knotted his stomach and shoulders and conjured memories of Ben. He forced another smile and looked up to see Gideon standing nearby, bare arms loosely crossed. 

 

"Hey," Will managed.

 

"We've got physical next and you probably need clothes, yeah? Let’s hit the dispensary."

 

"Okay." How long had it been since Will needed gym clothes ? Since Robot's initial attack on the Resolute, he guessed. 

 

So much of his life could be organized into pre- and post-Robot. No one else had made such a huge impact on him, altered the course of his life so completely by being both the catalyst of change and then the friend he’d needed to survive those changes. For all the tragedy and danger, Will would do it all again.

 

"You able to make your call?" Gideon asked as Will stood to join him. 

 

"Mm." 

 

"No one hassled you?"

 

"No?"

 

"That's 'cause no one knows who you are yet."

 

Will winced. He didn't know how much everyone knew about him, his family, or Robot when so much of the details were confidential, but he knew trouble seemed to follow them and the Robinsons often got stuck with the blame. Was he already a pariah? He'd been so focused on integrating back into school that he hadn't thought about the possibility that everyone hated him already. 

 

Fiddling with his messenger bag, Will couldn't meet Gideon's earnest amber gaze. He was already messing up when it came to Ben's sons, he didn't need to make it worse. "Look, if you're going to get any trouble for being seen with me, you can just tell me where to go--"

 

"What are you talking about?" 

 

A warm arm and faint cloud of cologne settled around Will's shoulders. Gideon seemed to like touching, which startled Will every time. Since he'd rejoined Robot, everyone but his family and Don had kept their distance from him. Will kind of liked that Gideon wasn't afraid of him.

 

Give it time , he thought darkly, echoing his words to John. 

 

"You can't get rid of me that easily," Gideon continued. He tugged Will down the path to re-enter the school. "You're a fucking celeb around here. Just remember that you were mine first, yeah?"

 

"Celeb?" Will echoed, bewildered. 

 

"Yeah. I mean. No one knows all the details--" A shadow passed over his face and his steps briefly faltered. Then he flashed a grin and continued. "But we've all heard the rumors and reports. Alliances with hostile alien robots? Survival on new worlds? Figuring out how to cleanse poisonous water? Rescuing colonists? Sound familiar?"

 

"Oh. Yeah. I guess." So much of that had been Will's family or Robot's doing. 

 

They turned a corner toward the gymnasium and found a queue forming near a window in the wall. Will blinked, and then smiled when he recognized many of the kids lingering in the corridor. Like him, they were space-pale and wearing the basic colony issued clothes. 

 

"Will!" cried a girl at the end of the queue, bringing around the heads of several others. 

 

In moments, a small crowd had broken away to surround Will and Gideon. Most of them were the same age or younger than Will, so Gideon towered over them, eyebrow quirked.

 

"I was wondering when I would see you, Will," said the first girl--he hazily remembered her face from a clump of kids Robot had rescued from a hull beach on the Fortuna. "How are you?"

 

"Where's your robot?" asked another. 

 

"Do you want to hang out after school?"

 

"Are we really safe here?"

 

"What classes are you in?"

 

"Hey," Will said, pretending to be comfortable with the attention. "You guys all in physical, too?"

 

"The classes include different age groups," Gideon explained. "And a lot of student mentorship." He winked and gave Will's shoulders a little squeeze. Then he nodded at the crowd. "Okay, ladies, looks like the line's moving…" 

 

They edged along, Will answering questions as best he could. Reaching the dispensary came as a relief, as he could focus on telling the man behind the window his size and collect the offered shoes, loose garments, and bag. 

 

"This way." Gideon propelled him toward the boys change room, and then paused. "You ID as male? Female? NB?"

 

"Um." Will had never been asked that question. "Male?"

 

"Then yeah." A gentle push got him moving again. "Me, too." 

 

Will had been expecting something like the cramped change rooms at his old school, but instead found himself in a large, brightly illuminated space. The lockers only went to shoulder height, so he could see from one end of the room to the other. 

 

"There's no assigned lockers, so just put your shit wherever. The locks are all biometric. You'll figure it out." Gideon waved vaguely toward one end of the room. "I'm over there. But a lot of people stick with their shipmates--the people they came with."

 

"Mine isn't here," Will murmured, trying to imagine Robot in that room, a t-shirt stretched over his massive frame, lockers and children at waist height. 

 

Gideon glanced at him, amber gaze searching, and then he shrugged. He was probably wondering what Will had meant, since several of the guys filing into the room and looking around in wonder were also nodding or waving at Will. 

 

Will didn't want to follow Gideon around--despite what he'd said, Will worried that association with himself would make life harder for the older boy--so he chose a mostly empty aisle and free locker at random. The others in that section looked a little younger than Will, and one familiar boy sat on the centre bench, shirt in his lap, and stared at Will in wide eyed admiration. Will offered a little smile and then turned away, the skin between his shoulder blades crawling. 

 

He undressed mechanically, listening to the conversations around him. Several of the kids he'd travelled with on the Resolute, Jupiter, and Fortuna had started school that morning while Will was with Dr Choi--they chatted about the school, their classes, their experiences on Earth and in space. 

 

"Hey, Robinson, where's your pet?"

 

Will turned, tugging his shorts up around his waist. Behind him stood another familiar face from the Resolute, though Will couldn't recall a name. He was older than Will by a few years, though he couldn't remember much about him. 

 

"Pet?" Will repeated, feigning confusion. "I don't have a pet. I didn't think we were allowed to bring any."

 

The other boy smirked. "Your pet robot? I didn't think you'd let it out of your sight."

 

That hit a little close to home--if Will had a choice, he really wouldn't let Robot out of his sight. "Oh," he said, still pretending not to know what the other boy was talking about. "I don't have a pet robot." Will slid his shirt over his head and sat to pull his shoes on. "Do you?"

 

The guy obviously wasn't getting what he wanted, as he grunted with annoyance and moved in so he could loom over Will's bent figure. "We all know it sticks to your ass. So where is it? Did you turn it off and leave it at home? You're not afraid something'll happen to you without it fighting your fights?"

 

Will finished with his shoes and stood to test their fit. He found himself less than concerned about the boy and his posturing, other than being honestly confused about the line of questioning. It was different from the usual accusations. Where is he going with this? Robot had saved all of them, not just Will. More than once. Was he jealous?

 

"You seem really interested in Robot," Will said when he was satisfied with the fit of his shoes. "Do you want to meet him?"

 

The other boy blinked and scowled. "Are you threatening me?"

 

"Um. No?" Will tried to smile encouragingly. "What's your name? Maybe you could come over some time?"

 

Someone behind the boy burst out laughing. "He doesn't even remember your name, Rich! You're just so beneath him."

 

A smattering of chuckles erupted around the room. Will’s face grew warm--he really hadn't had a lot of time to memorize names…

 

Rich flushed as well, but in anger. "You think you're so much better than the rest of us."

 

"No, of course not," Will protested. "I just--"

 

"It's just you." Gideon stepped in beside him, his posture relaxed. He grinned at Will, and then nodded at Rich. "He's not better than everyone, but you're pretty much at the bottom of the pile, so…"

 

"Gideon!" Will yelped.

 

"Aw, come on, he was asking for it." Gideon laughed as he pointed at Rich's red face. "Look at him. He looks like a splotchy tomato."

 

"Are you his fucking pet, too? Fighting Robinson's fights?"

 

"Maybe I just like fighting." Gideon's voice grew an edge, and darkness rose in his sharpening glare. "Doesn't matter whose they are." 

 

"There shouldn't be any fighting." Will laid a hand on Gideon's chest, trying to urge him back. "This is a new world--it's going to be hard enough to live here without fighting amongst ourselves." To Rich, he added, "I'm sorry I didn't remember your name. There was a lot going on. And I was serious about you meeting Robot. He's really nice."

 

"What the fuck is wrong with you, Robinson? I don't want to meet your fucking robot." Shaking his head in disdain, Rich stepped off, cursing under his breath. 

 

Gideon snorted. "Asshole. I hate when the n00bs try to make a name their first day. He's just targeting you 'cause you're the top dog--Will? Hey, you okay?"

 

Will nodded as he stared at the tiled floor. He didn't know why, but Rich's response made him feel like an idiot. He'd offered his favourite thing--friendship with Robot--and Rich had treated it like garbage. Was there something wrong with him? Was he so childish to think everyone would want to know Robot?

 

"Don't worry about him. He's just pissed. He wanted to fuck with you and you were completely unfuckable."

 

"Um." Gideon's unexpected turn of phrase startled Will out of his funk. "What?"

 

Gideon rubbed his ear studs and laughed at the banks of lights on the ceiling. "You know. He wanted to get a ride out of you-- rise . Rise out of you. I meant rise. And you didn't give it to him." He flashed a wide white grin. "So, let's go, shall we? Don't want to be late for your first physical, yeah?"

 

"Yeah, okay." Will looked around, surprised to find the change room empty. He started to follow Gideon, and then tugged on his sleeve. When Gideon turned, Will said, carefully, "Thank you for standing up for me."

 

Gideon coloured, his smile softening. "No problem, Will--"

 

"But you don't need to," Will continued, cringing a little when Gideon's expression fell. He didn't want to hurt his new friend's feelings, but he also didn't want anyone to get hurt on his behalf. Bad enough that Robot was always rescuing him, that Scarecrow had been seriously injured defending him , that his family was constantly protecting him… "I'd rather talk than fight, and make friends than enemies, so I don't want to, um, exacerbate. The situation."

 

"I just made things worse, you're saying?" Gideon said coolly, his accent strengthening. He pulled away, eyes narrowed. "Not everyone's going to be your friend, Will."

 

"I know." Will tried not to feel offended that Gideon thought he was so naive. "But I need to try."

 

Gideon's cold stare flicked over Will's face. Will braced himself for him to stalk off. Then he shook his head and his smirk returned. "Of course you do. Well, call me when it doesn't work out and I'll come exacerbate the shit out of the situation."

 

Relief made Will sag. He touched Gideon's arm, pleased when Gideon's smile grew. "Thanks."

 

"Yeah. Let's go."

 

They hurried out through another door, a short hall, and into a bright gymnasium. As Gideon had explained, many age groups were represented in the small crowd already sitting around their teachers. Thankfully, Will and Gideon weren't the last--a group of girls, all but one from the Resolute, trailed in at the same time. 

 

"Welcome to Proxima Centauri," began their grey-haired female teacher once all were seated. "I'm Ms Sterling and my associate is Mr Bacchus. This is a new world with many new challenges. You need to prepare your bodies as much as you need to prepare your minds. I want you to forget about your Earth gym classes--we're not going to play a lot of sports here. We're going to learn physical skills in three main categories: survival, exploration, and combat."

 

"And dodgeball," added their male teacher, Mr Bacchus, with a grin for the class.

 

The kids chuckled.

 

"Dodgeball counts as combat," Gideon commented loudly. 

 

"Especially where you're involved, Gid." Mr Bacchus rolled his eyes. "All right, let's see who's joined our class…"

 

They went through attendance and Will tried to pay attention to the names. When they got to him and he answered with "here," Mr Bacchus offered another wide grin. 

 

"Will Robinson, we're excited to have you. I bet you can give us some lessons on survival."

 

Will shrugged. "Well, my dad was a marine. Between him, my mom, my sister, and Don, they knew how to keep us all alive."

 

"And the robot did all the combat," Rich muttered nearby. "This kid’s basically useless."

 

Will sighed inwardly. 

 

The class ran them through preliminary physical assessments and most of the kids from the Resolute performed as well as could be expected for people confined to space ships for the better part of two years. Their teachers didn't comment much, but Will did get a nod of approval after a pathetically short and sweaty sprint, so he must not have done too badly. 

 

The kids who had been living on Proxima also performed the assessments, to demonstrate the expected proficiency. Will, still breathing raggedly, watched with interest and admiration as Gideon, one of the eldest, scrambled up and down the rock wall, swung along the monkey bars, sprinted laps, and performed long and high jumps with apparent ease. When he'd finished, he winked at Will as he trotted past, barely out of breath. 

 

I should exercise more , Will decided. 

 

They finished the class with, not surprisingly, dodgeball. The teachers teamed the eldest Proxima kids with the youngest Resolute kids and vice versa, ostensibly to even the odds. 

 

"You better get ready to run, " Gideon warned Will playfully. "I'm coming for you. "

 

Will laughed. "If there's one thing I'm good at, it's dodging. Explosions, aliens, lasers, certain death…" Several others in the class chuckled, and Will found himself in the centre of a clump of appreciative Resolute kids. The moment reminded him of their journey on the Jupiter, when Judy stood in the role of captain and Will and Penny her impromptu lieutenants. 

 

The next twenty minutes passed in squeaking, thumping, cursing, shrieking fun. Will was not as good at dodging rubber balls as he was at dodging death's icy touch, but he enjoyed himself anyway. Between the frequent high fives and congratulatory hugs from the girls on his team, he was beginning to feel normal by the end of the game. 

 

That might have been the intention of their teachers, he realized as he and his panting classmates filed out to their respective change rooms. After their years in space, all of the newcomers desperately needed some normalcy, and you couldn't get much more normal than dodgeball.

 

"Hey," Gideon said, catching up to him just inside the change room. "You're on your own for the next period. You know the way?"

 

Will took a moment to visualize the human studies corridor and nodded. "Yeah, sure." He reached his locker and peeled off his shirt, eager to get the wet fabric away from his skin. After a moment of mopping at his neck and chest, he noticed Gideon staring and reflexively tried to hide himself. "I know, it's pretty gross," he said, covering the scar on his shoulder. 

 

"What?" Gideon blinked a few times, his stare darting up to Will's worried face before dropping to the scar. He seemed a little flushed, probably from the running, and pushed his damp, spiky hair back with a shaky hand. "No, uh, it's not that--I mean. It's not gross. Actually, my dad has--had--he had scars like those. I always thought they looked like stars. I used to think he got them because he was in space so much. That he got them from the stars." He snorted. "Because I was an idiot. Now I know that stars will give you radiation poisoning or just incinerate you, they won't scar you." With a delicate sound he cleared his throat. "What was it from?" 

 

Will touched the thick, insensitive tissue, tracing its shape and recalling that terrifying moment in the Jupiter's loading bay. "Alien robot laser," he said softly. 

 

"No shit." Gideon rocked back on his heels, expression troubled. "How the hell did my dad get his?"

 

Will swallowed heavily, his mouth dry. He could almost hear himself answering, "Your dad regularly tortured an alien to open rifts. Of course he got shot." Instead, he shook his head. "I don't know. "

 

"Oh." Gideon turned away, hiding his face, but the tight angle of his shoulders clearly declared that he wasn't happy. 

 

"I'm sorry," Will added. I'm sorry that I'm not strong enough to tell you the truth.

 

With a shrug, Gideon and his quirked brow returned. "Whatever. You want to hang out after school?"

 

Will blinked, thrown off by yet another abrupt course change. He was beginning to find that Gideon could be a little hard to keep up with. "I can't," he blurted. Part of him couldn't bear the thought of being around Gideon and continuing to experience the gut wrenching memories and his inability to tell the truth. The other part desperately wanted to be alone to call Robot.

 

"Mm." Gideon pulled his shirt off, revealing a well-muscled chest and stomach. A flash of silver caught Will’s attention and his thoughts stuttered to a halt when he discovered the two bars pierced through Gideon’s nipples. “You sure?"

 

"Um. Yeah." Will tore his gaze away from Gideon's chest, heat rising in his face when he noticed a little smirk on Gideon's lips. "I, um, like your piercings." The sight of metal against flesh captured his interest as though he had been pierced by something…

 

"Another time, then. I'll see if my mom has some painting shit you can have and we’ll get together."

 

"Thank you," Will exclaimed, perhaps a little too emphatically based on Gideon's amused eyebrow. "Sorry," he added. "It's just, I really appreciate the help."

 

"That's me. I'm a helper." Gideon snorted as though laughing at an inside joke. "See you tomorrow, Will."

 

"Yeah."

 

Will watched Gideon for a moment as he sauntered to his own section and picked up a conversation with a neighbor--whatever he said must have been funny, as they both started laughing. A pang of envy cramped Will's stomach. Would he ever be so comfortable?

 

He finished dressing quickly. When he turned, he jumped a little to find the wide-eyed boy sitting on the bench and watching him. 

 

"Um. Hello," Will said. "It's…" He racked his memory of their class attendance, hunting for a name. "Sajan?" 

 

"Yes!" The boy leapt to his feet, dark hair flopping. "Did you mean what you said?"

 

"About what?" Will shouldered his bag and nodded to indicate that Sajan should follow him. 

 

"Do you think… could I meet your robot?"

 

A grin broke across Will's face. Finally. "Yeah, I think so. I'll talk to him. Just remember--he's my friend, not my robot. He doesn't belong to anyone but himself."

 

"Wow. What's he like?"

 

Will got to ramble about Robot for a few minutes while he walked through the busy halls to his next class, which improved his mood considerably. Just thinking about Robot made him happy, though with that lingering disappointment that he was so far away. And with that disappointment returned the ache between his brows. 

 

At the door to his class, Will had to laughingly direct Sajan to his own corridor, as the younger boy had gotten turned around while following Will. Then Will stepped into his Earth history class, curious about what he would learn. 

 

**

 

Will didn't get a chance to call Robot again until the evening, when he lay, full and showered and exhausted, in his bed. His headache had worsened until he took a painkiller with supper, so he felt a bit drowsy and numb as he stared at the shadows on his ceiling and entered Robot's code into his comm by muscle memory alone. 

 

"Will Robinson, " Robot answered after a few seconds. 

 

"Hi," Will breathed, relieved to hear Robot's electronic voice. He closed his eyes, straining to listen with ears and mind. "How are you?"

 

He didn't hear anything but faint mechanical sounds.

 

"Good?" he guessed.

 

No answer. 

 

"Bad?"

 

Silence. 

 

"Neither good nor bad?"

 

"Yes." 

 

Will shot victorious fists into the air. "Me, too," he said. He settled back into his pillows, arm with his comm tucked next to his head, other hand absently petting his stomach. "Is the work okay? I bet you're super bored. Your mind is capable of navigating the universe and you're stuck digging holes."

 

"Yes." 

 

Proud that he'd been able to interpret Robot's long silences, Will smiled to himself. "Sorry. Maybe we should think of something else for you to do." His smile faded as he thought about what might keep Robot occupied. "You could be a pilot again. That would probably be more interesting." And would take him further away, Will didn't add. 

 

"No," Robot said after a moment. 

 

Will released the breath he’d been holding. "Maybe… more exploring? You have a whole world to explore. And you can go where no one else can."

 

Again, Robot didn't answer. Will took this to mean that he neither agreed nor disagreed. 

 

"We can talk about it when you're home. At least for now you have videos. Have you watched anything good? I'm jealous that you don't need to sleep. I have so much catching up to do. You're going to be more up to date than me." He yawned. "Other people will try to talk to me about movies and I'll have to say, go talk to Robot, he's way cooler than me..." That reminded him of Sajan. "Some people want to meet you, you know. It won't be long before everyone sees just how awesome you are." Another yawn punctuated his sentence. "I miss you, Robot.”

 

A low, electronic clicking, almost a purr, tickled his ear. Will chuckled at the sound. It must have been a Robot equivalent to “Hmm.” 

 

“Sorry, I probably sound like Gideon, jumping around like this. There’s just so much that I want to tell you. So much to ask you. It all wants to come out at once and I’m too tired to stop it.”

 

More clicking and a faint image, or memory, of dark blue constellations eased the tension in his neck and helped him ignore the pressure of his lingering headache. Between one breath and the next, he’d slipped away.

Chapter Text

Eight

 

Will Robinson seems to have some insight into [...], or at least he thinks he does. Is he just naive? Or am I? I want to believe him. But if he gets hurt, the [...] may be the least of my worries--Maureen Robinson isn't someone you want to cross. 

 

 

I'll take the Robinsons down to the surface to look for the robot. This may be our only hope. 

 

 

Am I jealous? Why couldn't I have this with [...]? Was it due to [...] damage? Or was it me? What did I do wrong?

 

 

What have I done? I must fix this. 

 

**

 

Gideon growled and tossed his tablet away. He lay back on his bed, squeezed his eyes shut, and tugged on the three silver rings in his helix, letting the little twinge of pain ease some of his turmoil. 

 

Those last words haunted Gideon. What had his father done? Why was it so bad? And what did it have to do with Will? Had he done something to Will, and then Maureen or the robot… made him disappear? That didn't make sense. Ben had never been remotely violent, had never expressed ill intentions toward anyone. If anything, he'd been too kind, tried too hard to help others, to the detriment of himself and his family…

 

But whatever happened could have been accidental. Will's robot could have acted in defense, and then Will and Maureen covered it up. Maureen could have easily had Ben's journals redacted.

 

But why leave their names in there?

 

He was in the dark. 

 

As always, it seemed, when it came to his father. 

 

I have to talk to Will. His heart gave a little flutter. He could barely talk at all around Will, much less ask him about this. And whenever Gideon thought of his father, he wanted to hit something or just… shut down. He didn't want Will to see him that way. 

 

But he needed to know. 

 

**

 

Will wasn't exactly evasive , but he always seemed busy. Or at least preoccupied. Or maybe swamped under his popularity. Teachers and students alike frequently pulled him aside to ask questions, talk about this or that club or committee, or just tell him how awesome and inspiring he was. 

 

Gideon would've been pissed at the frequent interruptions if Will didn't get a delicate little blush across his nose every time. Gideon watched for it hungrily, immediately turned on by Will's adorableness. The bizarre end result found him getting a bit stiff every time someone called Will's name in the busy school corridors. 

 

This is getting out of hand , Gideon thought as he stealthily adjusted his trousers and Will turned to discuss rocks or something with a starry eyed girl a few years his senior. I'll never talk to him like this. 

 

"Want to come over?" Gideon asked when the girl finally released Will from her clutches. "It's Friday. We can do something."

 

Will smiled at him, making Gideon's stomach do happy flips. "Robot’s coming home this evening. I want to be there."

 

The happy flips turned into a depressed plummet. He stepped back, scratching his lightly gelled head, gaze on the ceiling so Will wouldn't see his disappointment. "Oh. Yeah, okay."

 

"Do you want to come to my place instead?"

 

And the flips returned with a vengeance. Gideon felt lightheaded. "Whatever, " he croaked, trying to stay cool, when really he wanted to throw his hands in the air and shout in triumph. He had to remind himself that this wasn't just for fun--he needed to have a serious conversation with Will. It was hard to keep his feet on the ground, though, when he'd spent the last week dying to get Will alone.

 

"Well, if you want to," Will amended, shoulders falling. "You're probably busy." He hiked his bag a little higher and continued toward the gym. 

 

"No!" Gideon hurried after him, kicking himself for being too cool. "I meant--yeah. I'll meet you after class. We'll hang out or something."

 

"Awesome!" Will's exclamation and honest smile warmed Gideon through to his toes. "I've been so beat all week, but today I feel like I can actually do something."

 

"You do look better," Gideon agreed before he could stop himself, and gave himself a mental kick for being 1) Fucking obvious, and 2) a damned sycophant. "You must be adjusting to the planet and food and shit," he added. 

 

Will had been faintly grey since his first day, when he wasn't flushed with embarrassment or exertion, his eyes bloodshot. And Gideon had seen him rubbing his eyes, head, and neck often enough that he'd been tempted to offer a massage.

 

But as Gideon strode with him from the caf to the gym, he could see a change working over him. His steps were stronger, his colour was better, his gaze was sharper. Gideon couldn't remember much of his own first weeks on Proxima, but he had been told often enough that new colonists could experience symptoms in their first days planetside--the reminder went out every time another wave landed. He couldn't recall anyone being so badly impacted before, though. But then, Will was special and who knew what he'd been exposed to between Earth and Proxima Centauri?

 

"I guess," Will agreed. "I'm glad. Life is starting to get back to normal. Like having someone come over after school." A shy grin crossed his face, and he coloured. "That must sound… stupid."

 

"Nah. It doesn't." Gideon cast a side eye at Will, reminded again that under his sweet, good-natured exterior, Will hid some insane experiences. No wonder he got so excited about ordinary things, and was unfazed by the extraordinary. 

 

They pushed their way into the change room and separated to find their lockers. Gideon itched to follow Will and ogle him as he stripped, but had thus far been able to restrain himself. He didn't need to try hiding his interest while jumping into his own shorts. Bad enough that he could clearly remember Will's body after their first physical--sweat gleaming on his flat stomach, quick breaths heaving his narrow chest, pulse throbbing at the base of his throat. The memory made Gideon's gut tighten and hands twitch. If he got too close again, he might not be able to stop himself…

 

"Dude, you in there?" 

 

Gideon jerked back to reality. One of his best friends--a tenth waver who'd landed when Gideon was twelve--snapped his fingers in front of Gideon's face. 

 

"What? Fuck, Finn, don't do that." Gideon batted the offending hand away. 

 

"You've just been standing there staring at your locker. It's creeping me out."

 

"It's Friday. I'm already half-wasted," Gideon grumbled. He quickly stripped and dressed in his comfortable physical gear, ignoring his friend's snort of laughter. 

 

"Anything going on this weekend?" Finn leaned against his locker, muscular arms crossed. Gideon had had a crush on him at one point, until they started sneaking booze the occasional weekend and Finn got so hammered that he pissed himself, thereby relegating himself to the Friend Zone. 

 

"Working." Gideon pulled his well-worn trainers on. 

 

"Tonight?"

 

With great effort, Gideon kept himself from glancing toward Will. "Working," he said again. 

 

"Your side job?" Finn grinned and mimed jerking himself off.

 

God, I wish. Gideon shrugged and started toward the door to the gym. "Oldest profession in the world, mate, don't knock it."

 

Finn laughed and suddenly grabbed him in a headlock. "Then why don't you answer my calls, Gid?!" he wailed. "I need your special services!"

 

A hard jab to the underarm made Finn yelp and release him. “My special services are too expensive for you,” Gideon purred, jumping to get a grip around Finn’s bull neck from behind. Since he was up there, anyway, he swung a leg around and clamped on to Finn’s waist. “But I’ll ride you for free.”

 

Finn, always up for stupid stunts, neighed loudly and trotted through the corridor into the gym. Gideon expected him to stop there, but he picked up speed and practically sprinted around the crowd of waiting, laughing students, Gideon clinging for his life. Then he tripped. Like a dumbass. 

 

Gideon felt them both start to go down. He launched himself away, narrowly missing Finn’s weight crushing his leg. The floor hit him hard, as much as he tried to roll into the impact, and he suffered a stinging floor burn on his elbow.

 

They got to their feet, chuckling and rubbing their new injuries, and turned to find their less than impressed teachers frowning at them and the class still watching. Gideon's eyes automatically sought out Will, and he was pleased to see him laughing along with the rest. 

 

"Thank you for volunteering," said Ms Sterling dryly. "Set out the mats. You're both going to be combat assessment dummies."

 

“Aw, seriously?” Finn protested.

 

Gideon knew better than to argue. Ms Sterling shot Finn with a glare that clearly threatened Finn with a physical rating so low that he’d never be allowed to leave the colony safe zones.

 

Ms Sterling organized the new students into two queues while Mr Bacchus took the others to the opposite side of the gym for actual practice. Gideon and Finn grudgingly dragged some mats out, spaced them well apart, and took their positions in the middle, grimacing at each other. 

 

"Self defense and rudimentary combat are the last component of your introductory physical assessment,” Ms Sterling explained. “Finn and Gideon are going to put you into some basic holds. I want you to show me how you avoid or break out of them." She held up a finger. "Limit your contact. I just want to see what you know--don't hurt my demonstrators."

 

A nervous-looking girl tip-toed to the edge of the mat, clutching the bottom of her shirt. Gideon felt like a creep with the way she stared at him as though he was about to molest her. 

 

"I'm not going to try to cop a feel or anything," Gideon assured her, lifting his hands. "I'm just here to strangle you."

 

The waiting students laughed a little and the girl almost smiled.

 

The girl had no knowledge of self defense--Gideon carefully hugged her from behind and she tugged weakly on his wrist. The entire experience was one of the most awkward moments in his life.

 

On the other mat, an even smaller girl swept Finn's legs out from under him with a sharp shout, and he hit the floor. Gideon felt a bit better about his own lot. When he spotted Will near the end of his own queue, he felt even better.

 

A serious girl with a serious blonde ponytail, athletic and almost as tall as him, stepped up. Gideon grabbed at her half-heartedly and she avoided him with quick side steps and a loud, firm, "Get away from me!"

 

If Gideon had been a creep in a dark corridor looking for action, he probably would have moved on to meeker prey. But he was a demonstration, so he moved behind her and grabbed her around the middle as though planning to carry her off. Before he could tighten his grip, she performed a two-handed strike with her elbow that hit him in the stomach and convinced him to give up. 

 

"Not worth the trouble," he said, backing away, one hand lifted in surrender and the other rubbing his tenderized stomach.

 

She laughed, her grim expression brightening with a cheeky smile. "You just don't know me yet."

 

The comment startled a chuckle out of Gideon. He nodded his appreciation as she sauntered off.

 

His eye caught on Will again as he was watching Finn carrying their smallest classmate around on his own mat. Gideon felt a growing sense of dread. 

 

If he grabbed Will, could he keep himself from just… plastering himself all over that hot, lanky body? If Will noticed how excited he was, would he be disgusted? Interested? Shit, he didn't know if he could handle either one at that point. 

 

Should he pretend to strain his shoulder before Will stepped up and get out of the whole thing?

 

Then again, if he had to watch Finn grab at Will with his large, strong hands, would that really be much better? Gideon's voyeuristic tendencies would probably kick in and he'd get turned on anyway .

 

There really was no winning.

 

He needn't have worried; before he got a chance to manhandle Will, Rich appeared in front of him, a grin growing across his square face.

 

Aw, shit. Gideon hadn't wanted to start something with the new, unknown colonist. Not with Ms Sterling and half the class looking on. Some secluded corner was much more his style...

 

"Come on, then," Rich said, stepping onto the mat and waving at Gideon to approach. "Show me what you got."

 

"This isn't a fight," Ms Sterling warned. "Richard, I appreciate that you are exhibiting confidence, but taunting a potential attacker can backfire. It doesn't diffuse a situation."

 

Based on Rich's swagger and the way he rolled his shoulders, diffusing the situation was the last thing he wanted to do. 

 

"This is only a demonstration," Ms Sterling reminded them. "I want to see what methods you know, not how badly you can injure an opponent."

 

"That's a shame," Rich murmured.

 

Gideon edged around him, debating what move to try. If he was really going to attack Rich, he’d fight dirty from the start, maybe jumping on his back and gouging his eyes out. With Ms Sterling looking on, he made a simple attempt at getting an arm around Rich's throat--not easy when Rich was the same height as him and built as thickly as Finn.

 

Rich reached back, gripped Gideon's upper arms with punishing force, and threw Gideon over his head. 

 

Shit , Gideon managed to think as the world spun around him, and then his back hit the mat and knocked the wind out of him. 

 

He curled onto his side, wheezed, sucked in a breath, wheezed again, tried to make struggling for air look manly.

 

"You okay?"

 

Even with his eyes squeezed shut and feeling like his chest was about to explode, Gideon recognized Will's concerned voice. 

 

Keep it together, Gid , he chided himself. Get off your ass.

 

He took a few breaths, each one a little easier than the last, and pushed himself up to sitting. "No problem," he groaned. When he opened his eyes and found Will crouched over him, he smiled shakily. On the one hand, he liked seeing Will so close and his worry touched Gideon's tiny black heart, but on the other, damnit , the whole thing was stupid embarrassing. "I'm great."

 

Rich and a few others were killing themselves laughing, and Ms Sterling stood nearby, her steely grey head shaking. 

 

Gideon got to his feet, still aching, and pretended that he hadn't just gotten his ass handed to him. Will jumped up beside him. 

 

"You can go on," Ms Sterling said, not even pretending to make it a question. 

 

"Yeah, of course," Gideon said, stretching and hiding a wince. "Who's next?"

 

"How about me?" Will grinned. "If you're up for it?"

 

"I'm always up for it," Gideon assured him. Especially where you're concerned. 

 

Will stood in front of him, bouncing on the balls of his feet, his little smile easing all of Gideon's pain. Gideon took the opportunity to study him, slowly and thoroughly, as though sizing him up. Rubbing his jaw thoughtfully, Gideon admired the fall of his bangs over his brow, the little bow of his lush mouth, the confident set of his shoulders, the crescent of collarbone peeking under his shirt, his lean arms crossed and one hip cocked as he waited. Gideon could devour every centimeter of him. 

 

"Any time now, Gideon," Ms Sterling drawled. 

 

Gideon shrugged internally and steadied himself with a last deep breath. The residual pain helped with the unwanted excitement. He padded into Will's personal space and gently clasped his arms, his hands shaking only a bit as they memorized the sensation of Will's smooth skin. If I had you alone, this is when I would tug you closer and--

 

Will locked his hands together and jerked his arms out of Gideon's grasp. He stepped away, head tilted as though in question. 

 

No, this is not the best I've got , Gideon answered the unasked question. One day I'll show you…  

 

Gideon paced around him, gaze roving down the nape of his neck, along the curve of his spine, into the little dip at the small of his back. He moved in, breathing deeply of the scent of clean boy, and slid his hands in under Will's arms to lock around his shoulders. 

 

He had a moment to thrill at the warm, firm flesh under his fingertips, and then Will dropped to the floor. His dead weight wrenched him out of Gideon's grasp, and he rolled away in a quick, graceful movement. 

 

Gideon tried a few more times, all with the same result--he would get a tantalizing taste of Will's body, and then Will would slither out of his hold. When Gideon began considering just tackling him, he raised his hands in surrender. "I give up, it's like trying to catch a bar of soap."

 

Will's expression of concentration cracked with a grin. "Dad taught us a few tricks."

 

"I bet he did."

 

The last six students were more of the same: a few were easy to get into a hold, one gave Gideon some trouble, and one stomped on his foot hard enough that he had to limp for the next few minutes. 

 

"Well done," Ms Sterling said when all had had their chance to test their mettle against the more experienced colonists. "I'm going to separate you into groups based on your proficiency, and we'll join the rest of the class. But first, go warm up." She sketched a circle in the air--the universal sign for Run some laps and make it snappy. I’m judging you.

 

Groaning again--his chest and back still twinged with each breath and his foot protested each step--Gideon shuffled into a sad excuse for a jog. He spotted Will ahead of him, the athletic, I’ll-elbow-you-in-the-gut-if-you-so-much-as-look-at-me girl on one side and a little, dark-complexioned boy on his other. As much as he wanted to speed up and butt in, to take Will's attention back for himself, he reassured himself that soon enough they would be in the Robinsons' home and Will would be all his. 

 

The rest of the day passed agonizingly slowly. Gideon had had to practice with a handful of his classmates who didn't cut him any slack, so he barely got to see Will. Those glimpses he did manage were of Will either grabbing or being grabbed by other people, fueling both his envy and interest. 

 

Ms Sterling then roped Gideon and Finn into putting the mats away, so by the time Gideon made it into the locker room, it was to see Will already dressed and leaving with two other boys.

 

Shit, you don't stand a chance, Gid . Gideon slammed his locker open and dressed with short, jerky movements. He's not interested. Why would he be? When has anyone ever wanted anything from you--

 

He fluffed up his sweaty hair and paused, rubbing the studs in his ear roughly enough to sting. 

 

Whatever. It doesn't matter. You just need answers. Focus. 

 

He sighed and, a little calmer, collected his bag to head to his next class. 

 

When the final chime rang, Gideon already had his crap together. He bolted out of his machine learning class and strode quickly to the school's main atrium--he didn't want Will to pass by and leave without him. He lounged against the wall by the door as the other students flowed past, arms crossed and attention on his comm as though he wasn't anxiously waiting for Will to come find him. 

 

He'd just typed a brief message to Les to tell him he wasn't coming home when he heard a girl call, "Will!" 

 

His gut tightened and warmed. Gideon banged his head against the wall a few times. He had it bad .

 

He couldn't keep from seeking Will out, though, finding him near one of the corridors, talking to some of the new colonists with that delicate blush on his cheeks. Gideon squeezed the strap of his bag as it took a physical effort to keep himself from storming over there and snatching Will away. 

 

His patience paid off--Will, smiling and nodding, backed away from the other students. He waved at them and turned, gaze searching the crowd. 

 

Gideon hurriedly dropped his attention to his comm. I'm not waiting for you , his body language declared. I just happen to be standing here. 

 

"Hey."

 

Gideon maintained a passive expression as his heart sped into overdrive. "Hey," he said coolly, lifting his attention to meet Will's smile with a nod.

 

Will's smile faltered. His warm brown eyes flicked over Gideon's face. "Are you okay?"

 

Too cool , Gideon reminded himself. Don't be too cool. 

 

"It's the weekend." Gideon slid an arm along Will's shoulders, loving the feel of him so close. "I'm fantastic," he added, angling them both toward the door. "Let's get out of here."

 

"Is your back okay?"

 

It hurt, but Gideon shrugged. "Never better. I think I needed that adjustment."

 

Will's laugh made the discomfort completely worthwhile. 

 

They made their way into the bright, artificial lights of the colony. Will's head tilted back, resting warm and tickling against Gideon's inner elbow, as though he were searching the black sky. 

 

"It's too bad the lights are so bright," he said. "You can't see the stars or aurora."

 

Gideon couldn't remember the last time he'd gone out of his way to look at the sky. His interests were on the ground or in his workshop. "You'd have to leave the main colony."

 

"Yeah. Maybe I'll go this weekend."

 

"You didn't get enough of space when you were out there?"

 

"It's different when you're on a planet. This way." Will turned when they exited the school yard. Gideon released him and they strode side by side down the street toward one of the newer residential areas. 

 

"What makes it different?" 

 

Will walked in silence for a moment. "The planet you're on changes what you see. From Earth, you see an escape. From the other planets, you see an obstacle. From here…" He trailed off.

 

"What do you see from here?" Gideon prompted after a few steps. 

 

"I don't know. I haven't seen much of it yet. What do you see?"

 

Gideon looked up--truly looked --past the glow of the lights. If he squinted, he could barely make out a few specks, but he didn't know if they were stars, satellites, the space station in orbit above the southern continent, or the legendary Fortuna. A sudden spike of anger tightened the base of his throat and twisted in his stomach. That darkness had stolen something from him when his father chose it over his own family. It had ruined his life. 

 

"Gideon?"

 

Gideon dropped his glare. "Nothing," he said shortly, picking up his pace. "I see nothing."

 

They walked in silence for several minutes, broken only when Will murmured instructions to guide them to his home. They encountered few people at that time of day--mostly other students or parents with young children. The homes were new, still a clean beige without the degradation or the personal decorations found in Gideon's much older area. 

 

"Here we are," Will said quietly midway down a street of identical, modular structures. "You still want to come in?"

 

The question startled Gideon out of his foul mood. He hadn't realized Will had picked up on it. "Of course," he said, mustering some good humor. "Invite me in already."

 

"Yeah." Will's relieved smile helped chase away the last of Gideon's lingering anger. He hurried up the steps to his door. "Come on." 

 

Gideon followed, bemused and wondering what he would find within. 

 

The house was larger than Gideon's, but set up with the same basic floor plan. Past the main rooms, Gideon eyed the corridor to the bedrooms with interest--would he get to see Will’s room…?

 

"It's still pretty basic," Will said as he crouched and unlaced his boots. "We can't wait to start painting the walls. And Penny got a piece of, um, art? I guess? For the dining room." He stood and waved at a large painting on a nearby wall that looked like someone had dumped their paint cans on a canvas. 

 

Gideon eyed the bright splashes of orange and red, smirking. "I'm going to guess that it's called… Emotion. No, Frustration."

 

"Good guess," someone said from the back hall. "It's called Proxima Indignation. Isn't it great? It's so useless that I had to get it." A young woman, maybe a few years older than himself, stepped into the room toward the painting, tapping her chin. She shared Will's delicate complexion and freckles, but her long, braided hair was rich red. "After two years of everything having a functional purpose, I needed something stupid to remind me that we made it here. Everyone hates it. I love it." She met his smirk with a smile. "I'm Penny, by the way."

 

"Gideon Adler. You met my brother last weekend. Les." Les hadn't mentioned much about Penny, except that she was a lot of fun to hang out with, and way more down to earth than someone should be after so long in space. 

 

"Cool. Good to meet you, Gidadler." She grinned at Will. "And you said you couldn't make a human friend! Look at you."

 

Will scratched his head, his face flushing. "Penny…"

 

"Will has a lot of friends," Gideon told her, glancing at Will slyly. "He's the most popular kid in school. I'm lucky he could find time for me."

 

"You guys…" Will's embarrassment slipped into genuine unhappiness. 

 

Gideon kicked off his own shoes. "How about a tour? Or a snack? I'm starving."

 

"Yeah, sure." Will passed Penny with an uncharacteristic dirty look, and trudged toward the back rooms. "It's pretty boring. Bathroom. Bedrooms. Other bathroom. Mom and Dad's office is back there. Here's my room."

 

He let Gideon into a bedroom with about zero personality. Other than the basic furniture, the only items were a tablet on the beige desk and a brown speckled rock on the shelf over the unmade bed. The place was so empty, it didn't look like anyone lived there. 

 

Will paused, his stare unfocused and resting somewhere in the vicinity of the bed. Then he blinked and continued in to set his shoulder bag on the desk. 

 

"Nice place," Gideon said. He flopped down on his back on Will's bed, spread eagle, taking a great deal of pleasure in snuggling his head into Will's pillow. It smelled nice, like soap, like Will showered every evening before crawling naked and wet in between his sheets. Yum.

 

"I haven't had many chances to decorate."

 

Gideon cracked an eye open. Will straddled his chair, chin resting on his folded arms. Again, he wore that far away expression, this time his gaze focused on the rock. The corner of his mouth pulled up just slightly. 

 

"A little piece of Earth?" Will wouldn't be the first to bring a chunk of Earth rock with him, but his looked entirely unexceptional. Definitely not interesting enough for Will to just sit there. Ignoring him. 

 

It took a moment for Will's attention to shift to Gideon's face. A little line appeared between his brows, as though he were confused, and then cleared with a blink. Gideon began to wonder if he was spacing out.  "No, it's from the first planet we landed on."

 

"Huh. You want to remember it?" A bit surprising, considering the colonists had crashed there and it had apparently been terrible.

 

"Yeah. Of course." Gideon expected him to elaborate, but instead he stood. "You hungry?"

 

"Fuck, yeah." Gideon jumped back to his feet. That put him well within Will's personal space and he took the opportunity to deliver the Smouldering Look he'd been holding back until they could be alone. He stared deeply into Will's eyes, angled his hips towards his target, and deliberately wet his lips. "I'm starving," he said again, pitching his voice lower.

 

Will blinked. His wide eyes flicked down and up and he stepped back, colour rising in his face. "Um. Well. We, um, just have basic stuff. Soy toast?"

 

Gideon hated soy toast.

 

"Love it," he growled, advancing until he could feel the heat rolling off Will's body.

 

"Me too," Will squeaked. He backed out of the door and disappeared down the hall. 

 

Gideon gave himself a moment to analyze Will's responses: the darkness in his eyes, the flutter  of his pulse. That had been nervous interest, right? Surely, Gideon hadn't imagined it. 

 

He wasn't used to pursuing someone, interpreting them, but s omething had been there. Gideon intended to figure it out by Will's next birthday…

 

And the closer you get to Will, the closer you get to the truth. The thought rose from the black well that had opened in his heart weeks before, when he heard the news of his father's demise.

 

When he returned to the kitchen, Will was pulling slices of soy toast out of the toaster. Gideon hid a grimace--anyone who'd arrived on Proxima prior to establishment of the more advanced hot houses and ranches couldn't stand the stuff. But Gideon was hungry, and he'd eat pretty much anything. 

 

"You set up your gaming account yet?" Gideon asked as he accepted the plate Will pushed toward him over the kitchen island. He nodded at the screen covering one wall of the livingroom. 

 

"Gaming account?" Will repeated. He dropped more pieces in the toaster. "What's that?"

 

Gideon grabbed his own chest and stumbled against a cupboard. "No one told you ? Oh. Oh, Will . All of the Earth games were sent over. All of them."

 

"Oh. Like the videos?"

 

"Yes! Fuck, no wonder you're so smart. You were cut off. Come on." He brought his plate down into the livingroom and busied himself finding the controllers in the cabinet under the screen. 

 

Will joined him a minute later, sitting cross legged nearby. 

 

Gideon walked Will through his account set up and demonstrated the vast library available to the colonists. "I'll bring you some downloads of the best games," he said, winking. "They aren't accessible until you're eighteen."

 

Will shrugged. "Robot has access. I'll just play them with him."

 

"Wait. What?" Gideon froze with his toast halfway to his mouth. "Your robot has full access to the network?"

 

Will's eyes narrowed and he stiffened. "Yes," he said slowly, warily.

 

"That's sick! There's so much shit I can't get yet!"

 

Will relaxed. "Yeah, it is…"

 

Gideon finished off his toast and navigated to his favourite game. "Here, let's play this. It's the only way I'll be better than you at something."

 

"Don't say that," Will snorted. "There's a lot of things I'm not good at."

 

"Haven't found them yet." Gideon winked when Will glared at him and was amused to see Will colour again. 

 

And then, because they were alone and he didn't always have complete control over his mouth, he asked, "Did you ever meet my dad? Ben Adler?"

 

The game's intro video played, reflecting in Will's suddenly wide, frozen stare. 

 

"I…" he croaked, barely audible over the intro.

 

"Deputy Director of Advanced Systems?" Gideon prompted.

 

The plastic of Will's controller creaked. 

 

The intro finished. They sat in the menu, listening to the main theme until Gideon touched Will's shoulder. He jumped and looked at Gideon with an expression of… fear? 

 

"Will?"

 

"I met… a lot of people," he whispered. "A lot happened. I don't… remember everyone."

 

He remembered you . What happened?! Gideon wanted to squeeze Will's shoulder, maybe shake it, but the terror he found in Will's eyes made him retreat. He turned the grasp into a gentle rub across his back. 

 

"He was probably in his lab the whole time," he offered reassuringly. "It's what he was best at." So why did he go planetside? With you and your mom? "You gonna hit start or what? This song is going to drive me mad."

 

Will didn't answer, but he turned and began to play. 

 

One tutorial later, the front door opened and a red-haired woman stepped in. She stopped in the entryway, eyebrow rising when she saw them. "Hello."

 

"Mom!" Will jumped to his feet. "Hey, this is… this is Gideon. Gideon, um, Adler."

 

A little huff escaped her. Her stare seemed to pin Gideon to the floor, measuring him from every angle. Then she smiled, but it was a frozen, brittle expression. "Hello, Gideon. Welcome to our home." Her attention switched to Will and something seemed to pass between them. 

 

"Gideon has been my guide at school," Will explained as though to answer a silent question. "We share a few classes."

 

Gideon rose and approached, extending a hand. "It's nice to meet you, Dr Robinson. I've heard a lot."

 

"Just Maureen is fine." Her smile warmed and she accepted Gideon's hand with a firm shake. "I'm so glad that Will is… making some new friends."

 

What is with this family and wanting Will to make friends? He has tons. But Gideon just smiled and nodded and examined Maureen's strong features, wondering if she had been responsible for his father's death. All he could determine was that she was responsible for Will's skin tone.

 

"Are you here for supper?" she asked, pulling away.

 

The question was so banal and unexpected coming from the infamous genius and heroine and potential murder suspect, that Gideon didn't know how to answer. "Um."

 

"Yes," Will said. "If that's okay?"

 

"Yes, of course. I think we'll just heat something up, anyway. Judy's at the hospital and I have to review some figures tonight…" She started toward the back hall, and then stopped. Gideon could almost see her mind’s gears cranking around to remind herself to actually hold a conversation. "How are you, Will? How was your first week? You look better."

 

"Yeah, it was good. Thanks. Go ahead, Mom. I know you're busy--" He cut off abruptly and whirled toward the door. "He's here," he gasped, and the unfocused look in his eyes sent a chill down Gideon's spine. Then he smiled and darted to the door, pulled on his boots, and disappeared into the darkness.

 

"I hate when he does that," Maureen sighed. 

 

Gideon looked to her for direction. She just shrugged, so he followed Will out. Who's here…?

 

He caught sight of Will a few houses away in the direction of the local depot, running full tilt toward two figures. At first, Gideon thought they were both men, the larger of the two dressed in black and holding some kind of white, sparkling lamp. But then the larger one suddenly grew by several feet, two arms erupted from its shoulders, and it leapt into a smooth, unnatural, four-legged run.

 

"Holy shit," Gideon wheezed, fear freezing his limbs and closing around his throat. He couldn't breathe, couldn't move, couldn't call out a warning to Will--

 

The thing impacted with Will and Gideon cringed, expecting a cloud of blood, of gore, a shriek of pain--

 

Instead, Will was flung, laughing, into the air, and the thing caught him in its four arms. 

 

That's not… it can't be….

 

That was Will's robot?!

 

Gideon stood, shaking with adrenaline, on the Robinsons' front step, unable to tear his horrified gaze from the massive alien. Les had described it as humanoid, slow, and almost clumsy, like a man in a suit. But that was not what Gideon saw here. It moved fluidly and quickly, bringing Will up to its shoulder and then continuing at a quick stride on feet that splayed out and gripped the ground. Red light shone from seams in its armour. Its four arms ended in wicked claws. Its glowing face--or was it a giant eye?--was eerie, incomprehensible, its head turning this way and that.

 

And Will was still laughing , and speaking to it in a rapid, cheerful tone, his arm wrapped around its head as though it were the most natural thing in the world. 

 

The other figure, a rugged-looking man in a leather jacket and carrying a duffel, had to jog to keep up with the robot's rapid pace. Though he didn't seem to fear the robot, he did maintain ample distance from it. He gestured sharply and said something Gideon couldn't make out.

 

"He's just getting used to himself," Will snapped, loud enough to carry over the thudding of the robot's steps, obviously annoyed. "Everyone else will have to get used to it, too."

 

The man's voice rose, becoming urgent. "Most of the people living around here were on the Resolute when he… you know. If they see him like this, they'll think the worst. You have to understand, Will."

 

"It's not up to me."

 

"But you can explain to him--"

 

"Explain what ?!" Will's voice cracked. The robot slowed as it arrived at the Robinsons' yard, and both it and Will stared down at the man. "What should I explain?" he continued, low and shaking. "That he should hide how he looks because he had the nerve to try to save his--"

 

He cut off, twisting to find Gideon standing near the door. 

 

"Never mind," he said tightly, turning back to the man. "You can try to explain it to him, but I won't."

 

Gideon had never seen Will angry--he hadn’t thought he could get angry based on how he'd handled Rich--but in that moment he was furious , white-faced and wound tight. 

 

"Okay." The man held up his hands placatingly. "We'll talk more later."

 

"Maybe." 

 

The robot reached up with its huge, clawed lower hands and helped Will slide off its shoulder. It seemed to shrink then, metal plates shifting, the glowing seams disappearing, its arms winding together into two ungainly limbs, its torso tightening into something humanoid. When it had finished, Gideon knew he was looking at the robot his brother had met. 

 

"You don't have to be this way unless you want to," Will muttered, kicking a chunk of grass. 

 

"It does make it easier to get through doors," the man said drily. He started toward the house. "On that note, I'm going in--Oh. Hey there." At the bottom of the front steps, he spotted Gideon waiting at the top. "I didn't see you."

 

The robot stopped on the walk behind the man and it recoiled, arms lifting. Its face--eye?--flickered with threatening, radiating lines. Gideon could almost feel the heat of its aggression. "Danger," it said in a creepy, electronic voice. Six claws splayed over Will's chest, holding him back. 

 

Gideon pressed against the door, his panic surging. Danger? Me? The robot could tear him into pieces. How could it possibly think he was dangerous?!

 

"It's okay," Will murmured, his hands tiny as they encircled the robot's wrist. "It's not… This is Gideon. I told you about him. He's my friend."

 

As the robot glowered at him, Gideon felt a bubble of hysterical laughter try to work its way out. What happened to people who weren't Will's friends? Was this why he was so popular? Because the alternative was a horrible death?

 

"Gideon?" The man stepped up and reached out to him. "One of Nita's boys? I'm John."

 

Gideon latched onto him. Surely the robot wouldn't kill him if he was shaking John Robinson's hand?

 

"Hi," he said weakly, his attention fixing on John's face and not the baleful glare only a few meters behind him. "Yeah. Gideon Adler."

 

John's strong, calloused grip helped him focus. From his easy, eye-crinkling smile to his scuffed leather jacket and the smell of dust hovering around him, he had an "Everything's going to be fine" aura about him that immediately relaxed some of Gideon’s sheer terror. 

 

"Good to meet you. I helped your mom with some structural issues in one of her hot houses."

 

"Okay." 

 

"You sticking around?" John's smile weakened as Gideon clung to his hand. He gently extricated himself, leaving Gideon to grip his own elbows in a useless attempt at self-protection. 

 

"I...I don't know." He'd planned on it, but now…

 

"He is," Will said, approaching and somehow dragging the robot forward. "Gid, this is my best friend. Robot Robinson."

 

He called me Gid , Gideon thought inanely. And then, as the robot's slow footsteps made the ground quiver and Gideon got a good look at its armour and spikes and arcane runes, Your best friend could probably annihilate everyone in this colony if it wanted to. 

 

It stood over him, its face like a hole in space, difficult to look at because it was so wrong , so weird, so different, so completely alien that Gideon felt petrified. Perhaps if he'd met it with Les, he would think it was clumsy or quaint, but he had seen its true form, its speed and strength, and he knew without a doubt that it could end him.

 

And it thought he was dangerous. 

 

And Will held its arm, smiling encouragingly at Gideon.

 

I'm going to die. 

 

Gideon, his muscles like stone and his bones like water, extended a badly shaking hand. "Hi," he whispered.

 

The robot stared at him. Maybe. He thought he could feel it sizing him up. Probably reading his vital signs with its heat and xray vision and observing his blind terror. Probably letting him stew in his fear before it ripped his arm off and beat him to death with the bloody end.

 

The robot's arm slowly lifted. Its eerily warm, scarred palm gently nudged up under Gideon's fingers. It raised and lowered once before falling away.

 

I just shook hands with a sentient alien robot , Gideon realized, completely stunned. 

 

I wish Dad could see me. How many dud robots did I find in his lab? How many failed AIs did he program?...He'd have killed for a chance to know a creature like this. 

 

Gideon smiled tremulously and tried to meet Robot's gaze, but had to drop his eyes when the constant movement made him dizzy. "Hi," he said again to Robot's chest. 

 

"Come on," Will chirped, apparently unaware of the momentous event occurring in Gideon's life. "I want to show Robot that field theory we covered in astrophysics. I think it might have some errors and he'd be able to tell us where."

 

"Wait. What?!" Gideon whirled and stared, aghast, at Will. "It's Friday! You're best friends with a robot! And you want to do homework?!"

 

John burst into laughter. The loud noise startled Gideon into a little jump, still wound tightly with nervousness and flush with adrenaline. " Thank you ," John said between chuckles. 

 

Will coloured. "But it's interesting," he sulked. "Robot's a pilot and navigator--he knows this kind of thing."

 

"As cool as that is, can't it wait? It's the weekend. We should go do something fun and stupid. Like stacking Chariots on top of the depot or carving our names into a cliff face somewhere."

 

John sobered. "Interesting that you should say that, Gideon. There was an incident a few weeks ago--"

 

"Or play some games!" Gideon interrupted loudly, forcing a grin and tugging on Will's shoulder. "Does Robot play anything? I bet he'd kick ass in Raid."

 

"Yeah! Let's try it. You want to play, Robot?"

 

Robot nodded once. 

 

Gideon watched the movement, fascination growing. As his terror faded, curiosity and admiration eased in to take its place. How did Robot work? How was he put together? How did he think--how was he programmed? How did he transform? Who made him? How were his movements so smooth? How had he formed such a strong attachment to Will?

 

Gideon had followed his father's interests in robotics and artificial intelligence--he planned to surpass Ben's work. Could he learn something from Robot to make him better...?

 

If he doesn't snap and murder me, anyway

 

Gideon led the way back into the house, Robot thudding behind him. Each step sent a shiver down his spine--a mix of nervousness and growing excitement. Friendship with Will might have more benefits than he'd thought. 

Chapter Text

Nine

 

"I have to get a video of this." Will rested a knee on the arm of the couch and aimed his comm at Gideon, sitting in the middle, and then turned to take in Robot standing behind him. "Robot is going to play a human video game for the first time. Perhaps he is the first alien species to play a human game. What will he think?"

 

“He’ll get bored of you talking about it and not even bother playing.” Gideon reached out, grabbed his arm, and yanked him onto the couch. 

 

Will went down with a squawk, landing half on Gideon’s lap. He wrestled against Gideon’s grip until the larger boy shoved a controller in his face and demanded, “Let’s play.”

 

“Oh, yeah.” Will went still and settled in to play, content to navigate the menu screens with his head pillowed on Gideon’s leg. “Same game? Co-op? Robot, you in?”

 

He couldn’t see Robot’s face from where he was lying, but he could feel something emanating from him. Annoyance? Frustration? Robot had been a complex milieu of emotions since Will had sensed him striding down the street. From exuberant, to terrified, to curious, to some kind of concern, and then to the seething negativity Will felt as he set up the game. 

 

“Robot?” he sat up and leaned forward to examine Robot’s expression--there were definitely more spikes than usual. “Do you still want to play? We could do something else if you want?”

 

Robot nodded slightly and gestured at the screen.

 

“Okay.”

 

Gideon glanced back and forth between them. “He didn’t say anything, did he?”

 

“Sure he did.” Will shrugged a shoulder. “After a while you learn what language he’s speaking.”

 

“You think so?” Gideon gazed at Robot with some of the tension around his eyes that Will recognized as apprehension. Nothing like the white-faced terror of earlier, at least. 

 

Will felt a great deal of admiration for him after watching him overcome his fear to reach out to Robot. He admired Robot as well, who had done the same when confronted with a younger version of Ben Adler. They had both been so strong in that moment.

 

Could I have done the same? he wondered. A sad smile came to his face as he knew that, no, he couldn’t. When Gideon asked about his father, Will had lied to him. He was such a coward.

 

Why can't I just… tell him? The thought of letting it all out--everything he'd experienced and the chaos of emotions about Ben and Hastings and Scarecrow and humanity's journey into the stars using stolen technology--cramped his stomach and crushed his lungs. He wasn’t even allowed to tell him everything, anyway. After their debrief he’d intended to tell Ben’s sons that their father died a hero and leave it at that, but he knew there would be questions and he didn’t know if he could resist answering them. The entire situation felt like a knot waiting to unravel, or a blister waiting to burst.

 

Warm metal nudged his shoulder, a gentle claw slid through his hair. Will looked up, following the length of Robot's rune-carved arm to his shoulder and glowing, speculative face. He leaned his head against Robot's hand, feeling his tension ease for no other reason than that they were together again. 

 

"So, is Robot going to be able to use one of these?" Gideon asked, holding up his flimsy plastic controller. 

 

Will shrugged and looked to Robot. 

 

Robot uttered a few electronic beeps and a hum. The game popped up with a message that a third player had joined, and it began scrolling through available characters. 

 

"That is fucking insane," Gideon whispered to Will. 

 

"I know," Will whispered back, meeting Gideon's shock with a grin. 

 

Gideon stared for a long moment, his amber gaze flicking over Will's face. He sat so close that Will could see the clenching of his jaw and bobbing of his throat. Then he turned away and Will was left wondering what had just happened and why his own mouth was dry. 

 

"And Robot chose the medic," Gideon said roughly, and cleared his throat. "The lady medic. I did not see that coming."

 

The large-breasted female medic--ill-equipped for battle in a short, tight nurse's uniform--blew a kiss at the screen and wiggled her comically large syringe.

 

"I'm not sure how to feel about this," Gideon laughed. "But I am so into it."

 

When Maureen called them for supper, they'd run through several levels--Will sniping, Gideon stealth attacking, and Robot resurrecting them with a jab in the butt when they inevitably suffered defeat at the hands of their enemies.

 

"How can someone who can practically fly a Jupiter be so bad at video games?" Gideon teased as they joined the other Robinsons at the table. 

 

"I can't fly a Jupiter," Will protested, flashing a glance at Maureen and John. He didn't want them to think he'd been exaggerating his own abilities. They didn't seem annoyed, though, but were watching the exchange with interest as they opened their individual meals. 

 

" Practically ," Gideon repeated. He smirked as he peeled back the cover of his own tray. "My question stands."

 

"Playing games is completely different. There aren't AI sneaking up behind you in space."

 

"Usually," John put in. "Most of them weren't that stealthy." He didn't look at Robot, but Will could almost feel the amount of willpower it took for John to not heavily imply that he was referring to Robot’s species. "So tell me about your new school, Will. How are your classes? Your teachers? Your classmates?"

 

As much as Will appreciated John distracting Gideon from Will's complete ineptitude, he also didn't know what to say. How could he describe the confusion of being both relieved and happy that he was back in school and not sucking, sad at the reminders of Earth, nervous of meeting so many new people, overwhelmed by their admiration? How could he tell him about the wrench he felt every morning when he saw Gideon again for the first time, and remembered that horrible night, and felt again his helpless terror and agonizing inability to just tell his new friend what happened? And what would his parents think of how deeply he missed Robot for those days when they were apart? How he had felt uneasy the entire time?

 

 "Fine," he said, shrugging. "It was fine."

 

John lifted an unimpressed eyebrow. He looked to Maureen, who echoed Will's shrug, and back to Will. "Okay. Good. Learn anything interesting?"

 

"Not really."

 

"He rocked it in self defense today," Gideon chimed in. "I couldn't lay a hand on him."

 

John smiled, obviously relieved that he'd been given something . "That's great. Makes that six months in isolation worth it, right?”

 

“I guess. Gideon wasn’t trying very hard, anyway. One of the other kids in my group got me in a headlock.”

 

“Did you--” John mimed elbowing behind him, ostensibly into someone’s crotch.

 

“It was a girl.” Will blushed a little, remembering his helplessness as that wiry arm dug into his throat.

 

“Oh. You know, you can still… never mind. "

 

“Was it Blonde Ponytail?” Gideon asked. When Will nodded, he patted one bowed shoulder sympathetically. “She was hard core, Mr Robinson. Will’s lucky to still have a head.”

 

The Robinsons laughed and John moved on to his daughter. 

 

“How are your studies, Pen? You going to get out of going to school?”

 

“I’d better. I already have a job lined up with Communications. And Vijay already passed his exams. If I fail I’d never be able to look him in the eye again.”

 

"I was told that the colony is desperate for workers," Will assured her. "You'll pass no matter what." He grinned as Penny stuck her tongue out at him. 

 

The conversation wandered here and there for a time and Will mostly focused on his food until John asked, "So tell us about yourself, Gideon. What are you into?"

 

"Trouble, mostly," Gideon quipped. John chuckled, because they apparently shared a sense of humor, and Gideon continued, "Electronics, automation, robotics, machine learning, AI. That kind of thing. One day I'll have control over all the automated functions on Proxima. Mwahahah."

 

"Come on , Gidadler," Penny groaned, "we just got here. Don't make us need to find a new planet already."

 

Gideon laughed along with the rest of them--he seemed perfectly at ease with the Robinsons. Once again, Will found himself admiring him--his ability to navigate the new situation with a joke and a smile, when an hour previous he'd been white faced and frozen in fear. 

 

Then Gideon nodded to Maureen as she scraped her container clean, "Dr Robinson, did you work with my dad? Ben Adler?"

 

It was Will's turn to feel the return of his now-familiar, stomach churning panic.

 

Maureen's eyes darted to Will, her question obvious. 

 

Feeling worthless, Will gave his head a little shake. No, he hadn't told him anything. 

 

"Not very much," she said. "Our systems didn't interact beyond a few points of integration, and he spent most of his time here or on the Resolute. And please, call me Maureen."

 

Gideon twirled his fork, his expression blank as he stared at his plate. Then he shrugged and his little smile returned. "I don't think I can. I've heard way too much about you. You're the Dr Robinson."

 

"When do I get to be called the Penny Robinson?" Penny asked. 

 

"When your book comes out," Maureen said, her cool demeanor warming with a smile. 

 

"Two weeks. I'm putting that in my calendar." She made a show of typing into her comm. "Officially assume title of the Penny Robinson."

 

“You have a book?" Gideon asked.

 

"Yeah! I have two, actually. And a third in the works. It's a trilogy of our adventures. While we were in quarantine I worked with an editor on the first one, and it's going to be released soon. The Earth Family Robinson Part One: Lost in Space."

 

"Cool. What are the other two called?"

 

"The working titles are "Part Two: I Wish Robot Was Here" and "Part Three: I'm so Glad Robot's Here, We Would've Died Like Five Hundred Times"."

 

They all laughed again, Will nodding in agreement. He knew the books wouldn’t tell the entire story--not when Command didn’t want the colonists to know about the stolen tech, but even the remaining details showed just how incredible Robot was and how much they owed him. 

 

"That's lit, Penny. I don't think Proxima has any other writers."

 

"You know what they say, those who write history are the victors."

 

"I'm pretty sure it's the other way around," Will smirked.

 

"Is it, though?" Penny tapped her chin and gave him a significant look. 

 

After they’d all eaten, John joined Gideon and Will in the living room and picked up a spare controller. “You going to show your old man how to play?” he asked, sinking into a chair. He tossed a bag of potato sticks on the table. “I brought snacks.”

 

“Mr Robinson,” Gideon said solemnly, “snacks are always welcome.”

 

“That won’t be fair,” Will protested. “You were a marine!”

 

“True, but we didn’t use these.” John wiggled his controller. “And judging by Robot’s skimpy outfit, this won’t exactly be realistic. No offense, Robot. You look great.”

 

“Yes,” Robot said.

 

John ended up being a natural as a DPS character--some kind of masked samurai woman wielding an energy sword and a submachine gun--and between him, Gideon, and Robot, Will was outclassed. When Penny wandered in and demanded a turn, he willingly gave up his controller and flopped over on the couch. He pillowed his head on a cushion this time to give Gideon space, letting his legs hang over the arm, and stuffed potato sticks in his mouth while he watched Penny master his character with seemingly zero effort.

 

Something tugged on his foot. He looked up in surprise and snorted when he saw Robot delicately pinch the toe of one sock and pull. On screen, his character continued bouncing through the level, giggling maniacally as she stabbed an enemy in the neck with her other, even larger, alarmingly green syringe. 

 

Will tried to pull his leg back to free himself, already having a good idea of Robot’s intention. Robot refused to let go, and Will ended up jerking his foot out of the sock. Robot dropped the garment and leaned over the arm of the couch to peer down at the bare foot Will tried to hide. One immensely powerful and advanced hand reached down toward it.

 

With a squawk, Will scrambled over Gideon to get away, making him curse and twist to protect his controller, and then groan as he died in an electrical blast. 

 

“What the fu--flip, Will?” Gideon demanded, frowning up at him where he stood panting behind the couch.

 

“I think Robot’s getting bored,” Will said, glaring in turn at Robot, who peacefully watched the screen. “I told you we should look at our astrophysics homework.”

 

“Seriously?” Gideon looked to John and Penny. “Is he always like this?”

 

“He is pretty much the lamest,” Penny asserted, barely glancing away from her purloined sniper. “But we love him, anyway.”

 

“He’s not lame,” John chided. “He just takes after your mother. It’s a good thing. Maybe just not your typical Friday night thing.” He winked at Will, who coloured in annoyance.

 

“I need to use the washroom,” Will muttered and slunk away, irritated by the strange feeling of only one bare foot against the floor.

 

When he re-emerged, he met Gideon in the hallway, leaning back against the far wall, the very image of relaxation. “Hey,” he said warily, wondering why he’d been followed.

 

“Hey,” Gideon said. He drew near. “Sorry about the teasing, mate. We cool?”

 

If anything, that just made Will feel more embarrassed, that Gideon had noticed his affront. “Yeah, it’s fine,” he said, folding his arms and looking away.

 

Gideon slid back into view, edging into Will’s personal space, a little smirk on his face. He leaned in close and whispered, "Hey, you said Robot has full access to the network, right?"

 

Shivering from the sensation of Gideon's breath against his ear, Will nodded. 

 

"Then how about we watch a movie?"

 

From Gideon's sly grin, Will thought he knew the implications. "A restricted movie?" he whispered. 

 

Gideon nodded and showed more teeth. 

 

Will hadn't really thought about the benefits of Robot's access. He found himself suddenly very curious about what they could find in the library. 

 

"We'd have to go to his house."

 

"He has a house?!" Gideon laughed, stepping back. "That's so cool."

 

“I’ll go ask him.”

 

Will returned to the living room and leaned up against Robot's hard frame. Robot's face tilted and his stars shifted with pleased bursts. His arm went around Will, igniting happy warmth in his chest. Ensuring that John and Penny were still occupied with their game, Will murmured, "Gid's wondering if we could watch a movie in your house. You have access to more than we do. And, well, at least then you can sit on the couch."

 

The happiness immediately vanished, replaced by caution as Robot's attention shifted to Gideon. Although willing to tolerate Gideon's presence, he still didn't trust him, or like the idea of inviting him to his personal space.

 

Robot's grip around Will tightened and pushed him ever so slightly toward the door, his message clear. Let's go. Alone.

 

Will nodded, but reluctantly. He'd been enjoying his time with Gideon. Despite his confusion and dread, Will genuinely liked Gideon. He was always ready with a joke and a smirk, ready to help, and he seemed to like Will, but without the unrealistic expectations that other people held for him. And Gideon wasn't afraid of Robot, at least not anymore. He'd invited Robot to join their game. Will appreciated that more than anything else. 

 

They could all be friends.

 

Once Robot lost his own nervousness, anyway. Will couldn't blame him--Gideon resembled Ben so closely that even Will experienced sickening fear and memory when Gideon tilted his head a certain way or looked briefly serious. It made sense that Robot would be cautious around someone who looked like the man who tortured Scarecrow for a decade.

 

"Let's watch something another time," Will said, returning to the hall and Gideon’s waiting figure. "I'm not really up for a whole movie."

 

Gideon held up finger and thumb, a small distance between them. "The videos I was thinking about are actually quite short--you know what? Never mind. Another time." He tugged on his ear and looked away. "I should head out, anyway."

 

"Oh." Will slumped in disappointment. He felt like he'd let Gideon down. "We'll walk you home."

 

"Why?" Gideon laughed. "You think I'm going to get lost?"

 

"No, I--" I don't want this to end. "I want to stretch my legs."

 

"Is Robot okay with this?" 

 

"I don't know." Stomach sinking, Will glanced at Robot. "He doesn't have to come. I guess." The thought of separating only a few hours after reuniting broke his heart, but he hadn't considered that Robot would decline. He should have--they weren't stuck on a ship together anymore. Robot couldn't be expected to follow Will around, as much as he wanted him to. 

 

"Don't worry about it, mate. I'm a big kid. I know how to get home."

 

"Yeah, of course, I know." Will felt his face warming. How could he say this without sounding too weird? Gideon was so normal , so fun. For a while, Will had forgotten about the past two years…

 

"Hey, it's okay." Gideon's arm went around him. For the first time, Will leaned in, feeling awful for taking comfort from someone from whom he was withholding a terrible truth. "Oh, hey, hey." His voice softened. "We can do this again any time. You got anything going on tomorrow?"

 

“Yeah, I want to get Robot set up with that painting stuff you loaned me. And there’s a memorial service for Captain Kelly.” He sighed and rubbed his palms on his thighs, already dreading the service. Like Ben, Grant Kelly had made terrible mistakes, but he had done the right thing and protected his daughter, and the children of the Resolute, in the end. The entire situation left Will feeling conflicted, and reminded him about the moral grey area in which every adult seemed to reside. 

 

“And I’m all booked up on Sunday. Maybe next weekend. Don’t make any plans without consulting with me first, yeah?”

 

“Yeah.” Will dredged up a smile, warmed by Gideon’s friendly squeeze. “Thanks.”

 

"Any time.” Gideon’s soft gaze tracked over Will's face--that close, Will could see golden flecks in his amber eyes, could see the corner of his lips twitch as though he wanted to smile or say something. Then he flashed a grin and gave Will's shoulder a playful shove. "I'll see you later."

 

Will saw Gideon to the door and watched him stride away down the dimly lit "night time" street, another shadow among shadows, only his pale arms visible. A little pang squeezed his heart--he didn't like to see his friends walk away, it reminded him too much of the many times he'd been separated from other friends and family. 

 

Warmth at his back made him turn. Robot had followed him onto the step, his glimmering face directed down. Will felt his attention, like a gentle touch on his cheeks, and offered a pained smile. 

 

"It's okay," he said, trying not to be sad. 

 

Robot opened his arms slightly and Will's forced smile became a genuine grin. He leaned in for the offered hug, amazed that Robot had learned so well the human affectations that allowed him to communicate with barely a word. 

 

Robot's hands closed gently around him and they stood there for a long moment, Will breathing and Robot's internal mechanisms humming faintly. The metal beneath Will's cheek shouldn't have been comfortable, but it was. Somehow it's shape seemed to mold to him, support him. His fingers found purchase in the plates of Robot's waist, stroking without direction, following each crack and crevice. 

 

You're here. The thought rose, solid and wonderful, followed by the heat of a blush crawling up the back of Will's neck. He remembered the last time they'd stood on the Robinsons' front step, and the sudden sickness that had taken him. His knees weakened, he felt lightheaded and shaky, his grip on Robot tightening. 

 

Robot's arms held him closer, perhaps in reaction as Will clung to him. His great mass shifted. "Will Robinson," his quiet, electronic voice churred. 

 

For a heartbeat, Will thought Robot was about to continue, warning him of some kind of impending danger. Instead, Robot released him enough to bring an arm in between them. He opened his hand--in his palm sat a stone orb.

 

Will laughed, his lightheadedness dissipating into amused disbelief. “Where were you hiding that?” he wondered, picking it up. He eyed Robot’s torso, considering the plates and Robot’s ability to shift his configuration. Would it be unreasonable for him to have some kind of storage? Will gave his head a little shake and refocused, holding the stone to the light over the front door. When he recognized it, his breath fled in a rush. “Oh, Robot, you made this?” The stone--a coarse pink granite--had been cut into the shape of a baseball, the stitches perfectly formed, random indents and scars as familiar to his fingertips and thumb as his own skin. “How?”

 

Robot held up his hand and wiggled his six fingers, John’s official sign language for-- 

 

“Alien robot laser,” Will sighed. “It’s fantastic. Is this what you do when everyone else has to deal with inconvenient organic needs?”

 

Robot shrugged and nodded. He gently closed Will’s hand around the stone ball and pushed it toward his chest.

 

“For me? You don’t want to decorate your house with your art?”

 

Another push. 

 

“Thank you.” Will bowed his head, thumb rubbing over the granite stitches, remembering his old baseball from Earth--lost after they’d arrived at the Fortuna--his team, his friends, playing catch with Robot so long ago. He cleared his throat. “I really like it. I’ll go put it in my room.” He stepped away, and then paused. “And then do you, um, want to do anything? I’m not really tired yet… Maybe we can go back to your place?” He remembered Gideon’s suggestion and experienced a little thrill at the idea of investigating the colony’s restricted offerings.

 

Robot nodded. 

 

“Great. Just a minute.”

 

Will triggered the door to open and blinked in surprise to see John leaning casually against the back of the chair he’d been sitting in earlier, doing something on his comm. Had he… gotten up for some reason? Penny had vanished, so maybe John had been saying goodnight to her?

 

“Hey,” John said, looking up. “Going to bed?”

 

“Um. No, I just need to put something away, then I was going to hang out with Robot.”

 

“Wow, look at that. I noticed Robot working on something, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. Is that a baseball? Can I see?”

 

“Uh, sure.” Will grudgingly released it into his father’s palm and watched in growing concern as John tossed it a few times. When John passed it back, Will clutched it protectively. 

 

“You guys want to watch something? I’ll grab us some drinks.”

 

Will rocked back on his heels, unsure of what to say. “We, uh, were going to go to Robot’s house. So he can sit on the couch.”

 

“Fantastic. I’ll grab the drinks and bring them over.”

 

So much for the restricted movies.

 

“Okay,” Will sighed. “Sounds fun.”

 

**

 

After the Grant Kelly memorial service, the Robinsons walked home from the colony command hub in thoughtful quiet, the dusk light incongruent with the midmorning hour. Will strode at the rear of the group, next to Robot, rolling over his memories of Captain Kelly and what he’d done. At the time it had just been information flowing through him, each event merely another problem to solve and death or injury to escape. But there, under Proxima’s syrupy orange light, he felt greater realization and understanding burrowing in under his skin, giving him chills. 

 

He felt like he was only then truly beginning to experience the effects of the fear that he’d been living with for so long.

 

At the Robinson house, Don pulled Judy aside and spoke with her quietly on the grass, his hand cupping her elbow. Maureen and John lingered on the front step, John’s arm pulling Maureen close, Maureen’s gaze on Judy and her eyes rimmed in red. Penny and Will faltered on the path to the door and looked to each other, and Will knew Penny’s troubled expression mirrored his own. 

 

How were they supposed to feel? Grant had been a husband to Maureen, a father in absentia to Judy. But to Will and Penny, he’d been a trap, an enemy, and then a martyr.

 

Robot thudded away and disappeared behind his house. Will watched him, confused, but uncertain if he should follow. He didn’t know if his family needed him to stay. This grief was beyond him.

 

Robot rounded the corner of the building only a minute later, a large stone from the nearby construction lot in his hands. He strode to the Robinsons’ front door and set it down by the step.

 

Maureen burst into tears and stumbled to Robot, wrapping him in a hug. 

 

He gingerly returned the embrace, huge hands on her shoulders, and let her sob against him.

 

When she sniffled and pulled away, he released her easily, his stars a calm, centred vista. 

 

“Thank you,” she murmured after a few breaths. “We should… should go inside.”

 

“I’ll make some coffee,” Don offered. 

 

The thought of going in and sitting around, not knowing what to say or do, made Will cringe. “Robot,” he said hopefully, “do you want to do some painting?” 

 

“Yes,” Robot said.

 

“Cool, I’ll be right over.”

 

Penny followed him into the house and down the hall to his room. As he dug into the closet to retrieve the bag of supplies Gideon had loaned him, she cleared her throat and asked, “Can I come, too?”

 

“Um.” Will had been hoping to spend time alone with Robot, but completely understood that Penny would want to get away, too. “Yeah, okay.”

 

When Will led her to Robot’s yard, Robot stared down at them with a… not entirely happy atmosphere. Will couldn’t really put a finger on how he knew, as Robot didn’t look any different from normal, but Will felt definite displeasure rolling off his segmented shoulder plates. He was about to ask what was wrong when Robot’s mood shifted to its usual neutral and his arm swung out to indicate that they should move toward his home.

 

“Thanks, big guy,” Penny gusted. “I guess I could call Vijay, but things have started getting pretty intense.”

 

Will really didn’t want to know about Penny, Vijay, and things getting intense. Changing the subject seemed like the wisest choice. “Okay. So, Robot, where do you want to go? I think there’s an easel in here, so you can paint pretty much anywhere.”

 

“I want to see your house!” Penny exclaimed. “You’ve had Will and Dad over. Is it my turn now?”

 

Robot obligingly invited them through the front door and Penny immediately burst into laughter upon walking into the living room and spotting the broken couch. “We should let Supply know for when the other robots get set up with houses. Platform furniture only.” She wandered deeper and laughed again when she came to the second bedroom. “It’s a good thing Scarecrow didn’t move in with you--the yard would be full of dressers.” At the master bedroom, she sighed happily. “I love it, Robot. Can you come over and decorate my room?”

 

“How about we set up in here?” Will asked, shouldering past Penny and gently placing his bag in the centre of the floor. He crouched and rifled through it, extracting a bundle of printed slats fastened with large wingnuts. After some struggling, Will got the slats pulled and rotated in the right directions, the wingnuts tightened, and the completed tripod standing up. He sat back with a sigh of satisfaction, found Robot standing behind him, and tilted his head back to give him an inverted smile. “Look good? It might be a little short for you. Maybe we should put it on a dresser?”

 

Robot nodded and thudded away to the other room.

 

“Woah, and I thought I was my own worst critic,” Penny commented on the gouged piece of wall.

 

Will tried not to colour and busied himself digging out the dozen jars of paints, old brushes, and thick paper that Gideon had included. There wasn’t much of the latter, Will noted; he’d have to brave the market again some time. I guess I can’t avoid it forever , he sighed inwardly.

 

A small dresser settled next to him. Will shook himself out of his glum mood and stood back as Robot set his borrowed easel on the furniture, lifting it to his level. Will placed a piece of paper on it and held up some of the jars and brushes. 

 

“What colour do you want first?” he asked. 

 

Penny appeared with one of the half-finished bags of snacks from the living room and joined Will where he leaned against a wall. They watched Robot begin tentatively dipping a brush into the purple paint and applying it to the paper in thin, perfectly straight strokes, and then broad sweeps, and then immaculate concentric circles. 

 

“I see why you love hanging out with him,” Penny said around a mouthful, leaning the bag toward Will. “He’s always learning new things.”

 

“Mmhmm.” Will claimed a few sticks for his own.

 

"Have you learned much more about him ? And the other 'bots?"

 

Will shrugged and swallowed. "A bit. I try not to pry. He shows me things when he wants to. I don't want him to feel like I'm studying him."

 

"But aren't you just dying of curiosity?"

 

"Not really. I feel like I already know him. Whenever I find out something new, it's not a surprise, it's just like… like I knew it without knowing it. It's just another piece of him falling into place. And he can take his time. I'm just happy being here."

 

"That's so sweet, it's almost sickening.” She chewed thoughtfully, her gaze distant. “I mean,” she continued slowly, “sometimes I feel like I know Vijay like that. But then he’s a stuck up jerk again.”

 

“Robot is never a stuck up jerk.”

 

“Duh. Pretty sure you need to be human to be stuck up.”

 

“What about cats?”

 

Penny recoiled, hand to her mouth. “Will! You discriminate against cats?! Since when? I don’t even know you anymore.”

 

Struggling not to laugh, he shrugged. “It’s not discriminatory if it’s true, is it?”

 

“You wouldn’t say that about cats if you’d ever had one.”

 

“None of us had cats, Penny.”

 

“I had friends with cats--” She cut off, darkness passing over her expression, dimming her smirk. “And they were awesome,” she finished quietly. She sagged back against the wall and then slid to the floor as though her knees wouldn’t hold her up. 

 

“I miss them, too,” Will said, sliding down beside her, leaning against her shoulder. To his surprise, the tops of their shoulders were nearly level--he was catching up. “Your friends’ cats,” he added, hoping to bring back her smile.

 

She obliged him with a weak curve of her lips. “Yeah.” Her attention returned to Robot, who had transitioned to making a grid of dots. “Sometimes I think you’re so lucky to have him.”

 

“Only sometimes?”

 

Very rarely I think he’s lucky to have you. But mostly you.”

 

“I know.” He pulled up his knees and looped his arms around them as he watched Robot’s small, exacting movements. What calculations drove the delicate dip and swish of his brush? 

 

And what calculations kept him there, in that small room, painting on a small easel as his small human family looked on? Why had he chosen this tiny life when he could have the universe?

 

Penny was right; Will was the lucky one.

 

**

 

“I’m going to Robot’s,” Will called to his house the next afternoon, already pulling on his boots. He was itching for some time alone with Robot--all weekend one family member or another had pulled him away or asked to join him. But they couldn’t stop him now; Judy and Penny were out, John was busy in his office prepping for the week, and Maureen had invited work friends over.

 

“Oh, wait.” Maureen stood from the couch and murmured “Just a minute” to her company, two women wearing loose tunics in the colourful Centaurian style. “Where are you two going?” she asked, joining Will at the door.

 

“Nowhere?” Will shrugged. “Maybe we’ll watch something.”

 

“It’s a nice day for a walk.”

 

“I’m fine with staying in. I haven’t hung out with just him since he got back.”

 

“He doesn’t say much, though, does he?” asked one of the women, a significant look in her cool gaze. “What do you talk about?”

 

“Um. I don’t know. Just whatever comes up, I guess.”

 

She snorted. “I’ll bet.”

 

Maureen glared at the woman, who answered with an innocent smile and turned to murmur something to the other. They both giggled.

 

Will, completely confused, tried to back out of the door. 

 

“Are you done your homework?” Maureen asked, following him onto the brightly illuminated front step.

 

“Yeah, sure, I did it last night.”

 

“And your chores?”

 

“This morning.”

 

She frowned at him for some reason.

 

“Can I go?” he prompted. He walked backward off the step, carefully avoiding the stone Robot had placed for Captain Kelly. “Bye.”

 

“Okay, well, just remember that Dad and Robot need to leave right after supper, so don’t be late.”

 

Ugh . Like he needed the reminder. Another week without Robot would start in just a few short hours. 

 

He stomped across the lawn and up to Robot’s door. When he lifted his hand to press the control panel, the door slid open before he could touch it. 

 

Within, Robot stood in his kitchen, doing something at the sink. The sight of Robot in his terribly mundane home brought a grin to Will's face, as always. The grin faded when the acrid odor of paint hit him and he wrinkled his nose. 

 

Robot turned toward him as he entered, and Will felt his attention lift and look past him, as though expecting something. 

 

"Just me today," Will explained. "What are you up to?"

 

Robot held up a hand and the silvery sink faucet.

 

"Taking the sink apart. That's cool." Will stretched and wandered his way through Robot's home, ducking into each room to open the windows. When he reached the master bedroom, he laughed lightly in amazement. 

 

Robot had painted all of the thick papers and moved on to his walls and ceiling, completely covering all of his earlier sketches with a full mural. He'd run out of paint at some point and started using his condiments again, and had even ripped into the hole in his wall to make a white paste with the gypsum.

 

Will gazed wonderingly at a bright, strangely colourful version of the galaxy. He could pick out individual stars, just pinpricks of white, but they were surrounded not by black emptiness, but by waves of bright red and yellow energy. Magnetic fields? he wondered. Radiation? Both? Something else? He stood in the doorway, trying to find a familiar constellation or grouping of stars to orient himself.

 

After some hunting, he found the trinary Alpha Centauri system, and was able to work his way to the nearby Sol System, and find the adjacent system where he'd first met Robot. He walked along the wall, awed by the details, and didn't notice Robot's arrival until the floor creaked behind him.

 

"Where’s your home?" Will asked, turning a circle.

 

Robot stepped to the Alpha Centauri corner and pointed at the little dot of Proxima Centauri. 

 

Will couldn't speak for a moment, overcome by relief and happiness. This was Robot's home…

 

He cleared his throat. "I mean… where did you come from? Where were you born?"

 

Robot's arm moved just slightly--the system where he'd first encountered the Robinsons.

 

Will was briefly confused--there had been no signs of robotic occupation on that planet--and then he mentally slapped his own forehead as he realized what Robot meant. Warmth fluttered in his chest. “I feel that way, too, sometimes,” he said softly. “Crashing there changed my life. I became a new person. But what about where you first came from?” He made an effort to picture the image Robot had shared with him the previous week: a huge machine looming over him, thrusting something into his--Robot’s--body.

 

Robot swirled with comprehension. He strode past Will to point to a system on the other side of the room. 

 

“No way,” Will breathed. “The other side of the galaxy?” He joined Robot and squinted at the dot at the end of Robot’s claw. It was almost invisible within waves of vibrant red and yellow. “What is this energy?” he asked, touching it and wincing when he discovered the ketchup and mustard weren’t quite dry. “Sorry,” he murmured, and wiped it off on his thigh.

 

Robot didn’t answer for a moment, and then Will felt his presence grow heavy in his mind. For a moment, Will thought he was going to share another vision, but his presence just increased in strength and intensity until Will heard a buzz that grew into ringing and winced as pain blossomed behind his eyes. The sensation immediately ceased and Will breathed slowly until the discomfort faded.

 

“It’s… a signal?” he guessed. When Robot shrugged, Will stepped back to look around the room again, taking in just how often that signal was represented. Had Robot’s species really advanced so far across the galaxy…? With their Rift technology, he supposed anything was possible.

 

He focused on Robot’s home star again, wondering what it was like, how many other robots lived there, how many existed in the galaxy, how many other sentient creatures they had encountered, how long they had roamed across the stars. 

 

One question at a time , he reminded himself. You already know everything you need to know about Robot. You just need to ask one important question.

 

“Do you want to take a look at those restricted archives?” he asked, grinning.

 

** 

 

Will perched on Robot’s chair, too excited to settle on the couch, as he watched Robot scroll through the 18+ section of the colony’s archives. Most of it contained videos with more violence and objectionable language than Will was accustomed, but some were more romantically inclined.

 

“Doctor Who-re Does the Universe?” he read aloud, squinting at a thumbnail that was mostly skin. “We like science fiction, right?”

 

Robot played it and Will sank in wide-eyed and red-faced disbelief as the video played. There were a lot of people involved. A lot of aliens. A lot of orifices. A lot of items going into orifices. And coming out. And going back in.

 

Was that normal?

 

At one point, Robot paused the video on a scene of Doctor Who-re being penetrated by a Dalek with a phallic attachment shouting “PENETRATE” while simultaneously performing some kind of service on a well-endowed Cyberman and being whipped by someone called The Master.

 

Will jerked out of his shocked stupor when the video paused. He looked to Robot where he stood by the couch. 

 

Robot pointed at the screen and swirled a question.

 

Will croaked out a weak, “I don’t know. It’s sex. I think. But, uh, maybe. Maybe we should talk to my dad. He, um, he told me I should talk to him about sex when I needed to know about it. So, um, maybe. Maybe we should do that. First. Before. Um. This. Whatever it is.” He snuck a glance back to Doctor Who-re, who appeared to be enjoying himself immensely based on the thick, swollen flesh hanging beneath his body.

 

Will tried to tear his gaze away. Looked back. Wondered if he’d ever get the image out of his head. 

 

Robot stepped toward him and Will jumped to his feet, embarrassed at his own flustered state. Ah, part of him had been appreciating that insane video. He scrambled toward the door, suddenly needing some air, and absolutely confused by what he’d just seen. Could people do that?

 

“Come on,” he said at the door, already elbowing the control pad to open it. “Let’s go ask my dad.”

 

Robot followed, a huge hand reaching. Will wasn’t sure why--but he avoided it and hopped out onto the step. The faster he got away from that video, the better. 

 

**

 

John stared at his tablet, considered his wording carefully, and typed, “Please do not send macaroni and cheese. The construction personnel do not like it.”

 

The office door chimed. He blinked, sent his message, and leaned back. “Come in,” he called.

 

To his surprise, Will and Robot both entered, Robot angling to get through the door without scratching the lintel. He could be surprisingly considerate that way, John had realized, picking up on things that John never would have thought of. Like the stone he’d laid for Grant. Class move.

 

“Hey, kids,” John said warmly, happy to see his son actually reaching out for once. Getting Will to talk to him was like pulling teeth sometimes. “What’s up?”

 

Will stood in front of the desk John shared with Maureen, looking anywhere but at John, toying with the pocket on his trousers, a bit of colour on his face. Robot hulked inscrutably behind him, as hulkingly inscrutable as ever. He wasn’t angry, at least--John could pick out that much based on how his face wasn’t red, no one was bleeding, and nothing was on fire. But more than that, he had no idea.

 

"Will?" John prompted, growing concerned. Other than his crew bitching about their mac'n'cheese, everything had been going smoothly; any minute he expected a new emergency, like finding out the planet was about to explode and only math would save them. That seemed like something that would happen. "Everything all right?"

 

"Um," Will began, his voice cracking. John winced in sympathy. "Dad, um… Robot, well, Robot wants to learn about sex."

 

John stared. "Pardon?" he managed, his own voice cracking.

 

A little more firmly, Will repeated, "Robot wants to learn about sex."

 

John's gaze moved from Will, his expression pinched with nervousness but determined, as if he was about to do a spacewalk, to Robot, his expression nebulous as always, and back to Will. He cleared his suddenly dry throat. "Well, uh, Will, I don't think I'm qualified to teach Robot about reproduction. I… didn't even realize his species could reproduce…"

 

"No! No. Uh. Human sex." Will's face started turning red. "He wants to know about human sex. And you, uh, taught me about it…"

 

John toyed with his stylus and wished he could go back in time to two minutes ago and jump out the window when his door chimed. 

 

Will was thirteen, so John wouldn't have been surprised if he showed up asking about sex, especially with all the girls that flocked to him. It was the right age to be curious. 

 

But… Robot? He didn't even know where to start. And that just led him down an extremely uncomfortable train of thought where he was haunted by an image of Will curled up against Robot's chest, a huge, possessive arm around him, a hand on his calf, a definite air of ownership emanating from him.

 

"Um," he said again. "Just a minute." With great courage, he resisted the urge to call Maureen and beg her for help. Instead, he reached into a bottom drawer to pull out a small bottle of Alpha Centauri rye whiskey and two shot glasses. 

 

"Dad, Robot doesn't drink," Will said as John filled them. "And aren't I… a little young?"

 

"They're both for me." John took a breath and threw back the first. The other he just gently held, taking comfort in its weight. When the whiskey had warmed its way into his gut, he started again. "So, uh, Will, you want to sit down? I know Robot prefers to stand, but you're making me nervous."

 

"Oh, yeah, okay." Will dropped into one of the office's low backed chairs, shifted around, perched on the edge. 

 

"We haven't really talked about sex with, uh, another person, have we? I mean, not really. More just the basics. How your body works, what you can expect growing up."

 

"Yeah." Based on Will's faint smile, he was experiencing some if not all of what they'd talked about. 

 

John shook his head, trying to banish the image of Will as a little boy that tried to overlay the teen sitting across from him. Will was growing up and he needed information. 

 

Apparently Robot was also interested. For what reason, John didn't want to think about. 

 

"Okay, well, first, I want you to know that everything you're feeling is perfectly natural--wait." John looked between the two, a sense of horror growing. "You two have a connection, right? Does that mean Robot is, uh, feeling these feelings… with you?"

 

The way Will immediately looked at the ceiling was answer enough. 

 

"Oh, Robot, I am sorry ." John really wished he could offer Robot a drink. "After everything you've been through, now you have to deal with puberty?"

 

"Dad," Will complained. 

 

"Sorry, Will, but I've been through it, too." John leaned back and rubbed his eyes. "Okay, so, sex is something you do with someone you really like. Well. Typically. And you should be a lot older. Like. Twenty-five. No, thirty. And it's something you kind of figure out as you go along. There's a lot of options out there and you need to figure out what you like, but in a caring, respectful way that protects you and the other person. You need to be a good listener. No means no, right? And you need to be slow, and careful, and take your time, and don't just jump into anything. And use protection. Always use protection."

 

Will blinked at him. Robot… swirled.

 

"What?" Will said quietly. 

 

John sagged, sinking his face into his free hand. "Now would be a great time for an emergency."

 

"What about the, uh, physics. Of it?"

 

John glared through his fingers. "It's about as simple as it looks. You have a penis. It goes into willing holes. After you've put a condom on it! And only once you're thirty. And, uh, there's ways to make it really nice. For both people."

 

Will glanced at Robot and John could almost hear the Get a load of this guy telepathic waves.

 

"Okay, okay. The important thing is to care about your partner. Make sure she feels good, respect her choices, talk about what she wants and what you want. Try new things. And be safe. Always. For both you and her." He glanced desperately between the two. "Does that make sense?"

 

"Um. Sure," Will said slowly. "I guess."

 

"So, who's the lucky lady? There's certainly a lot of girls interested in you ." John tried not to sound too proud of that fact, for fear of Maureen somehow listening in and laying into him for blatant sexism. At least he could brag to Don about it. 

 

"Oh. Uh." Will reddened again. "No one really."

 

John chuckled. "That means there's more than one. Well, don't play with their hearts, Will. That never ends well."

 

"Yeah. For sure." Will ruffled his hair. "Thanks, Dad. I guess."

 

"Any time, Will. And you, too, Robot." John considered Robot, wondering if giving him the sex talk meant that he'd adopted him. For all that there were awkward moments and a few uncomfortable vibes, John truly was glad to have him around. "Did I answer your question?"

 

Robot answered with a flat, "No."

 

John chuckled and drank his second shot. "Well, all right. Maybe it's time for some professional help. Your mom and I will look at what's available for videos and books about this topic and send some your way. How does that sound?"

 

Will brightened. "Great!"

 

"Don't sound too excited, it won't exactly be pornographic." When Will blushed and stammered, John took pity on him. "Nah, I know you're just excited to stop talking with your old man about it. But you know if you ever need help or advice, I'm here for you. And, uh, you, too, Robot. I don't know what advice I could possibly give you, but I'll damn well try."

 

Robot's lights formed a ring and it brightened a few times, whatever that meant. 

 

"You're welcome," John said. 

 

When the two had gone, John leaned back and sighed. He glared at the schedules and reports on his desk, still waiting for him to finish before he left that evening. They'd have to wait for longer; he and Maureen needed to talk. 

Chapter Text

Ten

 

“Plans?”

 

Will startled and slammed down his tablet, heat rising in his neck as he realized Gideon had been hovering behind him for some time. Definitely long enough to see what Will had been looking at.

 

He flashed a glance back, saw Gideon’s grin, and sank down in his chair in embarrassment. “Not really,” he muttered. At least nothing to do with his reading material, “A Teen’s Guide to First Relationships.” He wasn’t sure what was worse--that his mother had recommended it, that he’d been caught reading an in depth explanation of “love languages,” that he was so inexperienced that he needed to learn about that kind of thing in a book, or that he hadn’t had the decency to be reading one of the more interesting sections, like the one on kissing or “physical intimacy.” 

 

“Damn.” Gideon slid into the seat next to him. “You got my hopes up.”

 

“Er.” Will toyed with his fork, still fighting a blush. He had been dismissed from his pre-lunch class early after completing an Earth history test, so had taken the opportunity to do some reading in the cafeteria. His mistake.

 

“But seriously, you got anything going on tonight?”

 

“No--oh, wait. Yes, I invited Sajan to come meet Robot after school.”

 

“What?! I told you to consult with me before making any plans so we could get together again.” Gideon bumped him, his ever-present smile taking any sting out of the words. “Does not follow directions well.”

 

“Sorry. We arranged it yesterday.”

 

“Tomorrow then? What do you have going on?”

 

Will shrugged. Other than spending as much time as possible with Robot, he hadn’t thought of it. "Just… exploring."

 

"Then come explore my way. I'm working for my mom tomorrow in the morning, but I can show you around the hot houses. And I can point you toward some of the best places to check out."

 

"That sounds great. Thanks."

 

"Any time." Gideon’s soft gaze tracked over Will's face--that close, Will could see golden flecks in his amber eyes, could see the corner of his lips twitch as though he wanted to smile or say something. "Just don't tell anyone I work for my mum--everyone thinks I make drugs or perform sexual favors for credits."

 

Will blinked, face heating again. "Wh-what? Why would you want them to think that?"

 

"Well, it's funny, isn't it?"

 

Having been on the wrong side of authority so many times before, Will couldn't wrap his head around the comment. But he didn't want to seem completely naive. "I… I guess?"

 

Gideon leaned against him so heavily that Will almost fell off his chair. "That's one of the reasons I like you. You have no idea what anyone else thinks of me, and you really don't give a shit."

 

"Why would I?"

 

For some reason, Gideon laughed at that. "Right, why would you?" He stood, squeezed Will’s arm, and said, “I’m going to get some food. If Les comes over, tell him all the seats are taken.”

 

“This is a six-person table.”

 

“You heard me.” 

 

Will shook his head as he stared after Gideon, who sauntered to the line with utter disregard for the crowds flowing around him. When he turned back around, he was surprised to see a young girl with straight brown hair standing at the end of the table, clutching her tray and regarding him with wide eyes. 

 

“Um.” Will blinked, finding her vaguely recognizable from the Resolute and Fortuna. “Hi. Sa… brina?”

 

“Sam,” she said shortly. 

 

Damn, he’d been so close.

 

“Is this seat taken?” she asked, nudging a chair with her toe. 

 

Remembering what Gideon had said, Will shook his head. “Not at all. They’re all free.”

 

**

 

“I’m so sorry, Will.” The boy’s voice over the comm sounded almost choked, like he was on the verge of tears. “I’m not allowed to come over.”

 

Will sat on his front step beside Grant Kelly’s stone in the orange dusky light, anger boiling up in his throat. He couldn’t speak for a moment, indignation at the utter injustice strangled him.

 

“I’m sorry,” Sajan whispered.

 

“It’s no problem,” Will managed, forcing himself to smile so Sajan might hear it. It wasn’t his fault. He seemed just as upset as Will was. “Your parents know that Robot protected all of us for months, right? He’s the reason we made it here.”

 

“Y-yes.”

 

Will didn’t know what else to say. He didn’t understand this. He didn’t understand the pervasive dislike and distrust for Robot, who had proven himself more times than Will could count. 

 

Sajan hiccuped, shaking Will out of his head and back into the conversation.

 

“We’ll try again another time,” Will assured him. “You’re always welcome.”

 

“Thank you,” Sajan said, his voice barely audible. “I have to go. Bye.”

 

“Bye.”

 

When the connection cut off, Will let his head sink into his shaking hands. He breathed slowly, trying to calm the enraged throb of his pulse. Getting angry wouldn’t help. He knew that. But that didn’t make it any easier to let go.

 

He remained on the step until he felt the mental pressure of Robot’s close proximity. Like the previous week, he had spent Monday through Thursday in a kind of numb state. But throughout Friday afternoon his energy had eked back into him, culminating in a feeling of relief and joy to feel the first fingers of alien thoughts and emotions mingling with his own. 

 

He probably should tell Dr Choi about this pattern. When he was ready, anyway.

 

He hopped up, brushed himself off, and strode to the sidewalk. He closed his eyes and turned his head, trying to work out Robot’s direction, whether he was moving, and how quickly. Where are you? he wondered.

 

A memory of what it looked like to ride in the back of a Chariot rose up in his mind. They were still on the road, then. Moving fast. 

 

Only a few minutes later, Will opened his eyes, already focused on a Chariot rounding the corner at the end of the street. His initial pleasure at accurately interpreting the information coming across their connection was dampened by the realization that John was having them driven directly to the house. So Robot wouldn’t be seen.

 

He swallowed down the bitter bolus of his resentment and tried not to scowl.

 

The Chariot pulled to the curb and Will immediately went to the back and jerked it open. Robot glowed within, his face briefly offering a ring-like burst before he emerged with carefully measured movements. When he stood before him, Will leaned in for a hug, not caring that his father and three other colonists still sat within the Chariot. The feel of Robot’s arms folding around him made everything right again.

 

“Now that’s fucking creepy,” someone muttered. 

 

“Shut it,” rasped John. “You don’t need skin to like hugging.” One of the Chariot’s doors slammed shut and John came around to close the back. “Hey, Will,” he greeted, sounding weary. “How are you?”

 

“Fine,” Will muttered against Robot’s chest. Better now.

 

The Chariot rolled away, surprisingly quiet for such a large vehicle, and John cleared his throat. “Don’t I get a hug, too?”

 

“You’re my dad.”

 

John was quiet for a moment. Then he sighed. “Right. Well. I’m going in. Good to see you.”

 

“You, too.” 

 

John trudged away. Will stood with Robot for another few long breaths, soaking in the smell of dust and metal. He felt a prickle between his shoulders and knew there were probably neighbours peeking at them through their front windows. Let them look. I don’t care.  

 

“How was your week?” he said, finally stepping back to meet Robot’s gaze. 

 

Robot released him, claws lingering on Will’s shoulder and hip before his arms dropped. He didn’t need to say anything--Will had called him every night. He knew Robot was bored with his work, but getting familiar with the humans on his crew, and he’d been enjoying the opportunity to explore the area and work on some projects of his own. 

 

Likewise, Will didn’t need to say much, except, “Sajan couldn’t come tonight. Maybe another time.” He strode slowly up the lawn to his house, Robot at his side. 

 

At the door, Robot stopped him and held out a closed hand. 

 

Already half-expecting something, Will nodded. “What is it? What were you working on this week?” 

 

Robot opened his fingers to reveal another granite object--a horse. Unlike the baseball, it was somewhat crude. Perhaps because Robot hadn’t held Gypsy in his hand as he had with the ball, and the ratios were different, and Gypsy had been an organic creature. But Will could clearly make out the legs, the tail, the head, and he didn’t miss that this horse wore no saddle or bridle. 

 

“This is great,” Will said warmly, working it around, appreciating the smooth, cool texture and weight. “Are you going to keep it, or give it to someone? Because, if you want to, I bet mom would like it.”

 

Robot considered him and then nodded. 

 

“Cool.”

 

They entered the house together as Penny and Maureen were preparing food trays for reheating--the quick meals were becoming a Friday tradition. Will got roped into setting the table, keeping half an eye on Robot as he presented his newest piece to Maureen. She responded with a gasp and emphatic “Thank you!” as Will had expected, and his chest warmed with happiness that wasn’t all his own. 

 

The meal was quiet and Will keenly felt the lack of Judy and Gideon. John, tired from a long week, didn’t fill the silence as he usually did. Maureen and Penny were both busy on their respective tablets. And Will didn’t feel much like talking. As he ate, his mind kept drifting to the previous weekend, the restricted movie he’d briefly watched with Robot, the topic of relationships and sex that he’d been researching throughout the week. 

 

Not what he wanted to think about while sitting with his family and shovelling food into his mouth. He kept trying to pull his mind away to think about something else--homework or wondering when he’d finally be able to throw someone in physical--and the moment he slipped, he’d remember the fake Doctor Who moaning enthusiastically as the fake Dalek shoved its attachment into his body.

 

What was wrong with him? He’d managed to forget about it for most of the week…

 

He glanced up from his tray, caught his attention on Robot, and shrank down. Robot could probably tell exactly what he was thinking about… what must he think of humans?

 

John's comm beeped. He glanced at it, frowned, shoved a forkful into his mouth, and left the table. Will heard his muffled voice from his parents' room a moment later. 

 

Trouble. The air suddenly stank of it, distracting Will from his unwanted thoughts.

 

Will looked to Penny as the hairs lifted on his arms, and she met his gaze with a worried shrug.

 

They didn’t need to wait long. John emerged from the back rooms, frowning in annoyance. Will tensed the moment he saw him, and tried to relax when he noted the absence of panic or concern. 

 

"I have to go out for a while," he said. He picked up his container and scraped the last of his meal in. "One of the Chariots didn't return to depot--two of my engineers are missing. Probably think a new boss means a chance to go have some fun…"

 

"Any idea where they are?" Maureen asked. 

 

"The depot gave me the Chariot's signal. I'll find them."

 

"I'll come with you," Maureen, Penny, and Will chorused.

 

John laughed. "Getting bored with the civilian life?"

 

"I've been studying all week," Penny said. "It's not healthy. I need to get out."

 

"They might have run into trouble," Maureen objected.

 

"Then I'll help. Besides, if I'm going to keep writing, I'm going to need more material."

 

"You don't have enough already?" Will rested his chin on his fist and made a face at her. 

 

"There was that dead period in the middle." Penny stood and tugged on her loose, stylish tunic. "I'll go get changed. Don't leave without me!"

 

"I didn't say yes…" John trailed off as Penny breezed past him to her bedroom. When no one offered a good reason to keep Penny at home, he sighed and followed, presumably to get his own gear. 

 

Will leaned back in his chair, arms crossed. "I wanted to go," he muttered. He was starting to miss the constant adventures, if not the constant threat of danger.

 

“We can have our own fun,” Maureen assured him. “It’s Friday. Maybe we can tackle some weird math?”

 

Is this what it’s like to hang out with me? Will wondered. He shrugged. “Okay. I bet Robot has some weird math we’ve never seen before.”

 

“Yes!” Smiling now, Maureen looked to Robot. “What do you think, Robot? Ready to show me the equations behind the Rift drive?”

 

“No,” Robot said. Then, with a sense of what Will could only interpret as amusement, he pointed at his comm, and then pointed at Will and Maureen. 

 

Seconds later, numbers began streaming across their comm screens.

 

Maureen laughed. “I think he gave us a puzzle, Will.”

 

Long after John and Penny had departed and Maureen and Will worked through enough of Robot’s mathematical puzzle to realize it was not a single evening affair, Maureen finally begged off. “I need to get to bed,” she said, standing from the table and stretching. “When you’re my age, late nights just aren’t fun anymore.” She leaned over to kiss Will on the head. “Don’t stay up too late. And turn off the lights before you go to bed.”

 

“Yeah, okay. Good night.”

 

She hugged Robot as well, with a sleepy, “Good night. Thank you again for the lovely horse.”

 

Then she was gone, leaving Will alone with Robot. 

 

“Um.” Will twirled his stylus, suddenly nervous. “I guess I’ll see you out?”

 

He didn’t want to say goodnight to Robot so soon, but it also seemed strange to ask him to stay when Will was already drooping with weariness. 

 

On the front step, Will couldn’t bring himself to say anything. The sun hadn’t set yet and the air was warm, helping to chase away some of Will’s fatigue. In its place rushed uncomfortable heat, a coiling sensation, a breathless, lightheaded feeling. He stared up at Robot and his voice froze in his throat. Unbidden, the memory of the Doctor Who parody rose up.

 

Robot swung an arm out toward his own dark house in a clear invitation. 

 

"O-oh," Will stuttered. "You want me to come over?" he asked. 

 

Robot's swirling stars pulsed, blue-white tinged with purple, as he nodded. 

 

Will swallowed heavily, finding his mouth dry, and dropped his eyes to his sock feet. "Okay. Yeah. I want to. I just need my boots. And. A drink." 

 

What was this hot feeling? Sweat gathered at his hairline, his heart throbbed under his ribs, his stomach knotted and writhed. He backed away from Robot and had to hold the rail to steady himself. Robot's palm supported the small of his back--cool through the damp fabric of Will's thin white shirt. 

 

"I'll be right back," Will squeaked, and fled inside. 

 

He took several ragged breaths once in the safety of his dim house. 

 

Safety ? he questioned his own thought. Have I ever been safer than I am with Robot?

 

No, of course not. Robot's protection had been the only true constant in his recent life.

 

Then why did he experience something that felt like… fear? Apprehension? 

 

Unless. 

 

Was he feeling… Robots feelings? Was Robot nervous? Could Robot be nervous? What could he possibly be nervous about?

 

Or… maybe something else was going on? Maybe Robot had thoughts or feelings that got crossed when Will picked up on them? As Dr Choi had said, no one knew how their connection worked, what it could do. It could be that some perfectly normal emotion on Robot's end was turning Will into a mess.

 

Will shakily pushed back his damp hair. It didn't matter. He wanted to be around Robot. Robot wanted to be around him. They were friends. 

 

So thinking, Will quickly visited the washroom. He discovered that his body had some questionable ideas of when it was appropriate to get excited--he had to splash himself with cold water to get the swelling down enough to use the washroom. He drank deeply to ease his dry mouth, changed his shirt, shut off the lights, and then hurried to get his shoes on. Before departing, he sent a text message to his parents to let them know he would be at Robot's house. 

 

Without waiting for a response--with John on the road and Maureen in bed, he didn't expect one--he stepped out. 

 

Robot remained where Will had left him. His face brightened when Will reappeared, like a smile. The sight made Will’s heart rate pick up again. 

 

"Hi," he whispered, his nervousness returning. What was he expecting? Robot was his best friend, yet there was something… different about him. Was this what everyone else had noticed?

 

But no. He hadn't changed. Nothing other than just… being more himself. 

 

Robot traced a claw down Will's arm, inciting a shiver and rush of goosebumps. 

 

Will laughed and rubbed his arm. "That tickles."

 

Robot did it again on the other side. 

 

"Stop it," Will chuckled, playfully and ineffectually shoving Robot's chest.

 

Robot surprised him by holding his hand in place with a huge, careful palm. His stars purpled and his chest thrummed.

 

Again, a wave of breathless weakness washed through him. What was wrong with him…?

 

Robot's free hand curved around him and urged him toward his house. 

 

"Right." Will let Robot guide him across the lawn, grateful to be released from the strange spell and returning heat. "Let's go."

 

Robot opened his door and invited Will in with a graceful wave. The lights glowed to life. The screen turned on to a still of another documentary. Will stopped to remove his shoes, and then helped himself to a spot on Robot's broken couch. He stretched his legs out, laced his hands behind his head, and grinned up at his friend. "What do you want to do? More games? Another movie?"

 

Robot paused in the entryway, stars swirling as he thought about something. 

 

Will shifted, suddenly uneasy. "Robot?"

 

Slow, thudding steps brought Robot to the couch. Each vibration made Will's stomach jump and trepidation increase. Why am I afraid….? He's my best friend…

 

Robot stood before him, huge and calm, alive with awareness. He nodded at the spot beside Will and Will could almost hear his question. May I sit with you?

 

"Yes, of course!" Will scooted over.  "It's your couch."

 

With much whirring and humming, Robot settled next to him. 

 

They sat in silence for a long moment. 

 

"Movie?" Will prompted, unsure of what else to say. "Whatever you want."

 

Robot stared at him for a beat. Then the screen changed to the menu and scrolled through several thumbnails. 

 

"You don't even have to talk to it!" Will exclaimed, leaning forward in surprise. "You're just… connected to it. Like with me, but probably more effectively." He grinned, but strained as always when reminded of his limitations in understanding Robot and their connection. 

 

Robot reached around him, plucked a pillow from the end of the couch, and placed it against his own chest--an obvious invitation. 

 

Will hadn't planned on leaning in--without the legs, the broken couch was perfectly flat. But the gesture was so careful, so thoughtful, that he couldn't resist. He rested against Robot, pillowing his head on the cushion, and flushed when he felt Robot lay an arm around him, gathering him closer. 

 

Familiar icons scrolled by--the restricted videos. Robot must have still been on that menu from the previous weekend. Will squawked, already blushing terribly at the thought of seeing more of those images. He didn’t think he could take it.

 

“Just not anything restricted!” he wailed. “Not tonight.”

 

Robot backed out of the menu and switched to another to make his selection.

 

Will’s relief was short-lived. When the movie started, he groaned as the credits appeared in cursive and the first notes of the opening theme began. "A romance?" he protested. "Really?"

 

It paused and backed out. 

 

Guilt immediately stabbed him. "No, it's okay, " he sighed, patting the thick, plated thigh stretched out in front of him. "I said we could watch whatever you wanted and I already nixed a whole section. This is fine. Watching anything with you is fun."

 

Robot churred, his arm briefly tightened, and the movie began again. 

 

"Judy loves romance," Will commented. "If you really like them, maybe we should do movie nights with her."

 

The video zoomed in on a small town on Earth and Will swallowed a sigh. A country romance. The female protagonist appeared driving a pickup truck full of hay, and Will quickly realized why Robot had selected that movie--there was probably something about horses in the description. 

 

Well, he would make the most of it. 

 

"Years ago people on Earth used physical money to trade for goods and services," Will commented while the woman revealed how broke she was by dumping her purse on a store counter. "They're like credits, but they're made out of metal, fabric, paper, and plastic. Each country had its own design. It seems so strange now...."

 

A few minutes later, when the woman picked up a mysterious, handsome ranch hand at the town's gas station: "Our vehicles used to burn gasoline as fuel. Plants and animals died, were pressurized into oil, we pumped it out of the ground, and then we burned it, causing a lot of pollution. I'm glad we switched to solar cells for our vehicles."

 

When the mysterious, handsome ranch hand somehow tamed an injured stallion using only a warm whisper and gentle hand: "No one knows when horses were first domesticated by humans. There must have been some good on both sides, don't you think? A horse wouldn't put up with a rider unless it wanted to?"

 

Robot finally responded to that, uttering a concerned electronic whine. The video skipped over a scene of the protagonists working to break in the stallion.

 

"Yeah, I didn't think so," Will agreed sadly. "I'm sorry, Robot." 

 

He wasn't sure what, exactly, he was apologizing for. For humanity, maybe. For the deeply ingrained sense of ownership that humans inherently felt over everything they laid eyes on. For the years of torture that had been inflicted on Scarecrow because the people who found him were wired to believe that every other creature in the universe should serve them. 

 

"My grandma was very good to her horses," he continued softly, recalling a faded memory of the big brown barn, the air thick with the smell of horse and straw, struggling to carry a bag of feed to help his grandmother in her chores. "She took care of them. I think they were happy. But I wonder if they would have been happier running free."

 

Robot's other hand reached around and stroked Will's head. I don't blame you , he seemed to say. 

 

Will relaxed, tension easing from his shoulders. He hadn't realized just how terrible he'd felt for the many sins of his species until Robot offered forgiveness. 

 

"You should watch a movie about dogs next," he murmured into the pillow. "I think that relationship is more mutual."

 

Robot stroked him again, so gentle that Will barely felt his hair move. Then again. Then down his neck, shoulder, arm, the back of his hand. 

 

Will shivered and tried to pay attention to the movie, but the light touch made him squirm and the movie was so boring . His belly tightened with the unmistakable sensation of his body getting excited. He went hot with embarrassment. Here, Robot was trying to make him feel better, and Will was… was experiencing physiological arousal.

 

He tried to surreptitiously straighten and scoot away, hoping that putting a little space between himself and Robot’s solid warmth would help him cool off. 

 

Robot's arm didn’t budge, he was completely immovable. Will's shoulder nudged ineffectually against him, anxiousness heightening his excitement when he discovered that he was trapped. 

 

He lifted his knees and wrapped his arms around his shins, curling up to hide the evidence of his arousal. 

 

The strategy backfired, as Robot's caress continued off the back of his hand, down his ankle, and over the top of his sock. Shaking now, his breaths laboured, his heart struggling to beat, Will watched those six huge, clawed fingers travel along his body, helpless to stop his shameful reactions, to keep himself from… enjoying it. 

 

Robot was… holding him? Petting him? Was he… doing this on purpose? No. Of course not. Robot couldn't know what this was doing to Will. He was probably trying to be reassuring, not… exciting. 

 

But how many people ever touched Will? Gideon was the first to treat him with casual physical contact--everyone else kept their distance out of fear of Robot. And until they'd landed on Proxima, Robot hadn't been overly physical beyond reciprocating Will's hugs.

 

So the petting. It was. It was. Too good. Too much. Too much for his skin. Too much for his quivering nerves. His attention zeroed in on the sensation of cool metal tracing him like a sketch, like one of Robot's drawings. Head, neck, shoulder, arm, skin, ankle, foot, toes. 

 

He liked it. He didn't want it to stop. But it had to stop. If it didn't, he'd go crazy. He hugged his legs tightly, wiggling in place to get just a little bit of pressure and friction against his aching groin. 

 

Will had to tell him. As embarrassing as the thought was, it wouldn't be fair to Robot to let this go on. 

 

"Robot, " he croaked. He swallowed heavily. "Robot," he tried again. He lifted his gaze to meet Robot's curious, intent cosmos and felt flames lick at his cheeks. How was he going to say this? "Uh, I… I… C-could you let me up? I just, uh…" I'm getting turned on by the way you're touching me. "I need the. The washroom?"

 

Head, neck, shoulder, arm, shin, ankle, foot, toes. Robot never looked away as his fingers outlined Will's shape. His purple, pulsing starscape held unfamiliar patterns, promising to pull Will in if he stared too long into that endlessly fascinating infinity.

 

Will shuddered, unable to contain a quavering exhalation. He felt himself laid bare under Robot's scrutiny, unable to hide the helpless, shivering wreck that Robot's simple caress had created. 

 

"Please?" Will squeaked, not sure what he was asking for. 

 

Slowly, Robot lifted the arm that had been pinning Will in place.

 

Will sucked in a lungful of air. If they'd been in space, he'd have worried about the oxygen levels--he felt so lightheaded, he began to wonder if he was going to pass out. With effort, he pulled away from Robot's warm bulk, using the back of the couch to push up to standing. Stiff-legged and hotly aware of Robot watching him, he teetered to the scratched up hall and escaped into the unused washroom.

 

For several long moments, he leaned against the closed door and just breathed, trying to calm down and cool off. When he could bear to look at himself, he glared at his own red face in the mirror. What's wrong with you? he demanded of himself. Why are you reacting this way? Robot is your friend!

 

The wide, dark eyes in the mirror didn't offer any answers. 

 

I can't go back out there like this. He tentatively glanced down at himself and cringed at the obvious bulge in the front of his pants. Though he knew it was futile, he gave it a push. The attempt backfired--pressure only egged it on, making him hiss and almost push it again, almost rub himself. 

 

He dragged his hand away and gripped the edge of the sink. 

 

Okay, think about something awful. Crashing. Running. Alien monsters. Thermal equations.

 

Every thought, every scenario, reminded him of Robot. Robot rescuing him, Robot protecting him, Robot touching him…

 

This isn't working

 

He almost thought of Scarecrow and Ben, but shied away. He couldn't use them like that. 

 

Cold shower? His eyes darted to Robot's pristine shower and he almost laughed. Getting naked would not help. 

 

Deal with it?

 

That option gave him pause. Maybe he could make an excuse to Robot and run--or limp--home, deal with the unwanted arousal in his own bedroom, and then return?

 

That seemed the most feasible plan. He'd just need to hurry so no one saw him in that state. 

 

Okay. You can do this. Tell Robot you need to get something, and book it. 

 

Emboldened by a few deep breaths, Will triggered the door to open--and jumped back with a strangled shout, tripping and sitting heavily on the closed toilet. 

 

Robot stood directly behind the door, filling the space, his focused stare almost menacing. 

 

"You startled me," Will wheezed. He forced a chuckle. "S-sorry I took so long. You should just watch the movie. I need to go grab something." He stood, angled himself toward the sink, and edged toward the door. "I'll be right back. Excuse me." 

 

Robot didn't budge. Will found himself standing awkwardly with a hip nudging Robot's leg, trying to give a pointed stare over his shoulder. 

 

In the mirror, Will watched in horror as Robot's huge, dangerous hand lifted and his claws slid into Will's hair to start their journey down his body. This time they traveled down his back to his hip, igniting fire under his skin. A groan shocked him by escaping his parted lips. He clapped a hand over his mouth.

 

"Robot," he pleaded, backing away. "What are you doing?"

 

Robot advanced, touched his arm, and tugged on his sleeve. His other hand gestured toward the hall. 

 

Will was more like an automaton than his friend--he followed Robot stiffly toward the painted master bedroom. There, Robot pointed to the ragged hole in his wall, still visible under the mural, and it was no great feat to understand his intention.

 

Again, Will leapt back, his face so hot it must have been shining as brightly as Robot's. "You knew ?!" He didn't know if he should be angry or embarrassed or relieved. He settled on confused. "Wh-why were you--? What do you--? What are…" He trailed off as Robot crowded in, stroked his arm in the now familiar, if maddening, caress, and gently caught his wrist. He moved Will's hand to rest low on his belly and pressed it. "O-oh. Oh. Oh! You… you want me to… Oh. Um." Will wished he could dig a hole in the wall with his shoulder blades as he pushed himself backward. "Is that--" Is that allowed? he almost asked. 

 

His dad's talk hadn't prepared him for this situation. There were no chapters in the books titled, “What to do When Your Alien Robot Friend who is Telepathically Connected to you Wants you to Touch Yourself in his House.”

 

Robot nudged him again. 

 

Think about this logically. "You're… just… curious?" Will's pulse thundered in his ears. He could barely hear himself talk as he tried to understand Robots motivation. "You were able to… sense... what I was doing. And you want me to do it now? To… show you?"

 

Another caress, another rush of shivers and heat. His erection jumped against his palm, just aching for him to touch it. He'd never experienced something like this before, the strength of the sensations and temptation overwhelmed him, leaving him wilting, breathless, and ultimately helpless to resist. 

 

It'll be just like when we're apart. He knows what I'm doing, anyway. Why not let him see?

 

"Okay," he whispered. 

 

Robot brightened and murmured a pleased, electronic noise. He pushed Will's hand again and Will released another embarrassing groan, his head falling back to thump against the wall. Robot's claws immediately found his throat, tracing its length from jaw to collarbone. 

 

Curious, Will reminded himself faintly as he shuddered and started to slide to the floor. His knees didn't want to work anymore. He's just curious. 

 

"I need to sit down," he rasped.

 

Robot backed away, giving Will a chance to cling to the wall and catch his breath. He didn't stay away for long--after a few of Will's panicked heartbeats, he was back, supporting Will's elbow and tugging him toward the living room, giant palm sliding into the gap at the small of Will's back. 

 

"Impatient," Will commented tightly, allowing himself to be directed on his watery legs.

 

Robot led him back to the couch and let him collapse onto the soft, beige surface. There he sat, knees up, baffled by his situation, as Robot resumed his position at his side. 

 

He didn't know where to start. If he should start. Was this right? It had been one thing to pleasure himself alone, thinking about sharing the experience with Robot. But it was another to have him sitting right there

 

He tried to meet Robot's watchful gaze, but couldn't lift his eyes above one plated, spiky shoulder. "Um, I don't know if I can…"

 

Robot slid a hand over Will's stomach. His other arm went around his back, urging him closer, manipulating him into a position where he could lean against Robot's chest. The arrangement felt strangely intimate considering Robot had scooped him up several times in the past.

 

The pillow returned under Will's head, making him grin. "You're so--" Awesome , he was about to say. But he cut off with a gasp when Robot flooded into his mind, bringing with him a series of vivid memories. 

 

In bed, in the shower, legs shaking, heat gathering, hand moving--

 

"Oh," he wheezed, arching against the weight on his belly, pushing back against Robot's bulk. He grabbed the front of his pants, startled by how hard he was, how rigid, and how amazing it felt to finally squeeze the almost painful flesh. "Okay." He wet his dry lips. "Okay. You want to see it…" His shaking hands had some difficulty with his belt, made more excruciating when every nudge against his crotch made him tremble. "It's, um, kind of weird. I should warn you. But it. It's human."

 

He got his pants open and shivered. Okay. Here goes. Just. Be logical. He just wants to see. It's science. He's probably a scientist where he comes from. If I was him, I'd want to see it, too. 

 

Does he have one, too?

 

Will finally worked his thumbs into his waistband and wiggled his pants down. His grey briefs were dark with moisture, stretched over his erection. Before he lost his nerve, he pulled those down too, revealing his flushed, swollen flesh. 

 

His hand moved by itself to wrap around him and he let out a long breath of relief. It had never felt this good before. He was so wet and hot in his own palm, clear liquid seeping from his slit, that his hand was slippery as he pulled on himself. 

 

A moan whispered past his dry, parted lips. He pushed back against Robot, tilted his hips for better access, gripped Robot's thigh with his free hand just for something to hold onto. 

 

Robot made a soft, low chirping sound. Will could feel him in his mind, could feel his interest, his curiosity, his enjoyment. 

 

Will had begun thrusting into his own hand when he remembered that he was supposed to be teaching his friend. 

 

"Th-this, " he began, strained and breathless, forcing his hand to open. "It's called a penis. It… it's used to carry waste out of my body. And, um, for reproduction. And… recreation. Obviously. It's multi-functional. And… feels really nice."

 

Robot stroked his head, his arm, and then made Will jump by running gentle claws over his belly, pulling his shirt higher. To see better, Will guessed, shivering from the sensation. 

 

"It's not usually this big, or hard, or… red. You'll see. Oh… oh…" Robot clawed him again, leaving thin white lines on his flushed stomach, and Will couldn't help another low moan. "S-sorry." He didn't mean to enjoy Robot's touches quite so much. His friend was just curious, after all. "That… feels nice, too. But you should stop. If you keep doing that--oh--I'm going to…" 

 

Robot didn't stop. He only became bolder--he found Will's navel and explored it with a fingertip. The strange sensation only increased Will's fever. 

 

Will resumed his hard, firm strokes. His head fell back, his eyes squeezed shut, his legs shook as he pushed against the floor. He groaned embarrassingly, unable to restrain himself, and his sudden, achingly pleasurable release stiffened him like a bow, back arching. He came on his hand and stomach

 

Robot's embrace tightened and he made that low, churring noise again. Will felt him, heavy, in his mind, reflecting his pleasure. 

 

…!

 

A sudden stab of concern brought Will's eyes open. Robot's outstretched hand hovered over Will's stomach and the little pool of cooling ejaculate. He blinked, taking several moments to figure out the problem--most of the fluid Robot saw spurting out of humans was blood. Will couldn't blame him for being startled. 

 

"Oh!" he chuckled awkwardly. "That--that's just. It's my genetic material. It's okay. Humans make a lot of it. It… comes out. For. Reproductive and… and recreational purposes." With effort, he sat up and tried to catch the liquid oozing down his belly. "I need a cloth or something--"

 

Robot pulled him back down. Will started to protest before he realized what Robot was looking at--his swiftly softening cock.

 

Could Will blush any harder?

 

He's just curious. It's science.

 

Will tried to think of himself as an anatomical demonstration. Nothing to be embarrassed about. "See?" he said, lifting his flaccid flesh and letting it drop. "It's usually a lot smaller. I may not be able to grow two more arms, but there are a few transformations my body can go through."

 

Then Robot dipped a finger in the milky fluid on his stomach and Will blushed even harder. "Uh, um, we don't usually--I mean--unless someone is with someone else--we don't touch…" He floundered, stuttering. He didn't even know where the boundaries lay when it came to sharing your body with another human, much less an alien. Was this normal?

 

Is it normal when your alien robot best friend watches you masturbate and then touches you and your ejaculate for scientific reasons?  

 

Robot didn't respond, but lifted his finger to examine it closely, apparently unaware of Will's confusion. 

 

"I can find an article about what it's made of," Will said, feeling lame. "Okay, I have to clean this off, or it's going to stick…" 

 

That time Robot let him stand up. Will hobbled toward the bathroom, trying to keep his clothes clean. There, he gazed at the empty towel racks in dismay. No cloths. Of course. Why would Robot need cloths?

 

Well. With climate control, why did he need a shirt?

 

Will pulled off his shirt, wiped himself down, and washed his hands. In the mirror, he looked normal, if tired, his flush fading. He felt… good. 

 

"Robot, do you have any snacks?" he called, emerging into the hallway. He tossed his shirt toward the front door and headed into the kitchen. When there was no answer, he dug into the freezer and exclaimed in surprise, "That is a lot of soy loaf!" He leaned back to look at the edge of Robot that he could spy over the island separating kitchen and living room. "Why is your freezer full of soy loaf?"

 

A huge arm rose and a claw pointed at Will. 

 

"For me? Aw, Robot, thank you."

 

He helped himself to one of the several dozen boxes of loaf stacked neatly in the freezer. He briefly worried that the toaster wouldn't work after Robot's experiments on it, but it singed his loaf perfectly, and soon he was back at Robot's side, happily stuffing his face. 

 

Robot immediately touched the scar on his shoulder, and red sparks appeared within the cosmos of his expression.

 

"It's okay," Will murmured. 

 

He moved on, tracing runes over Will’s bare skin, down his spine, across his ribs, making forays over his hip. His intent was clear.

 

Will squirmed, laughing and embarrassed. "I can't do it again."

 

Robot pulled back, surprised and concerned. 

 

"I mean, I have to recharge. It just takes some time. And I…" He was about to tell Robot that he should really only do that kind of thing alone--but what was the harm in it? If Robot liked it, why not let him? It had been way better than doing it alone for Will, too. Besides, he just had to push into Will's conscious and he would always know, anyway. "I'll let you know when we can do it again," he finished, heating up at both the presumption and anticipation of another intense session. "I mean, if you want to. We don't have to. I just like hanging out with you, it doesn't matter what we do."

 

Robot's expression pulsed happily. He played his claws over Will's back and invited him to return to the pillow. 

 

Will agreeably leaned in and then, because he was tired, he pulled the pillow down to Robot's thigh and lay down, his head on Robot's lap. 

 

A pleased churr made Will warm, and long, gentle caresses soothed him. He sighed.

 

The movie started again and Will would've been bored if not for the constant tickle of claws on his skin and the satisfied hum of his body. 

 

He watched sleepily, mostly thinking about their plans for the following day, and jolted awake when Robot nudged him and pointed at the screen. There, he'd paused on a scene of the ranch owner and ranch hand kissing.

 

It took a moment for Will to realize what Robot wanted. 

 

"That's called kissing," he explained groggily. "People do it when they really like each other." He remembered a girl pecking him on the cheek after a particularly harrowing moment on the Fortuna and added, "Or I guess when they want to say thank you? I don't know. My parents do it. I saw Penny kiss Vijay once. I'm pretty sure Judy and Don want to do it. You can add this to the Weird Things Humans Do list."

 

The movie resumed and Will drifted off again to the sensation of claws combing through his hair.

 

At some point, he felt himself being shifted, and then a blanket settled over him, and then he was shifted again. He should have woken up--he was in a friend's house, after all, being an inconvenience--but he was so comfortable and so tired, and a strong sense of safety relaxed him completely. He didn't want to open his eyes. 

 

So he didn't, until sometime the next morning when his comm beeped, reminding him that he'd fallen asleep before filling in his diary. He opened his eyes and found himself still on Robot's couch under a blanket, head on Robot's thigh, Robot's fingers in his hair, a lame romance playing quietly. 

 

He rolled onto his back and smiled up at Robot's glimmering face. "Good morning. "

 

Robot leaned down until his face almost touched Will's brow and Will wondered if he could fall into that strange, beautiful, infinite space. "Yes," he said.

Chapter Text

Eleven

 

A message from John waited on Will's comm, received hours earlier. Come home when you get this. The tone banished the warmth and comfort cultivated by a night on Robot's couch. Will sat up quickly, nicking his head on Robot's elbow. He barely noticed as he typed back an acknowledgment. 

 

"Something's wrong," he said to Robot, sensing his concern. Immediately, he recalled John's call the evening before. The missing Chariot and engineers. 

 

He groggily stumbled to his boots and put himself back together. He couldn't wear his shirt; there was no help for it. 

 

Robot followed him out the door--Will nearly stopped him. As always, he felt guilty for dragging him into trouble. But he appreciated the reliable, tireless support so much that he couldn't bring himself to say anything. Instead, he flashed a grateful smile and stepped out.

 

Dim grey-orange light and a gentle rain bathed the quiet neighborhood. Will blinked and felt abruptly cold and lost--his body's natural rhythms were entirely out of sorts. It left him feeling like he'd slept through the entire day and woken in the evening, despite the actual time being earlier than he'd typically get up. 

 

Will I ever get used to this? He wondered as he hurried next door.

 

He stopped short just inside, feeling like he’d run into an invisible wall. He had not expected to find the Robinson house full of adult colonists.

 

"Uh," he said when two dozen pairs of eyes turned toward him, suddenly burningly self-conscious of his bare, wet torso and the crumpled shirt dangling from his hand. 

 

"Will." Maureen jumped from her seat by the table and strode to his side. Despite the early hour, she was neatly put together, only the smudges under her eyes betrayed what must have been a long night. "I'm glad you're here." She laid a hand on his arm, brow creased with concern. "Are you okay? What happened to your shirt?"

 

"I just spilled something on it. What's going on?" He shivered from the chill, the climate control hit his damp skin, raising a million goosebumps. 

 

"The engineers are still missing," she said bluntly. “We’re about to mobilize the search parties.”

 

Though the statement confirmed his suspicions, Will was still surprised. "Missing? How is that possible? The Chariot, their comms…"

 

"Disabled or out of range." Her voice briefly quavered, but quickly returned to its usual firm cadence. "We're setting up search parties. We'll find them. But, until we figure out what happened, no one is to leave the safe zone."

 

"We'll help you." The offer came automatically from a time when he was one of a small team, and everyone had to pull their weight in an emergency. 

 

"Thanks, Will, but we have limited Chariots to get to the area. Let the adults handle this one." She smiled warmly and squeezed his arm. "They're probably fine. Try not to worry about it."

 

Try not to worry? When an impromptu council had gathered in his house, and the Robinsons had a history of situations going from bad to "you’re probably going to die" in record time?

 

"Um, okay. Sure." He nodded, if only to help ease some of the tight lines around her eyes, and couldn’t stop himself from saying, "I could ask Robot if he could…" He trailed off when her lips pressed together. She didn’t want to hear it. 

 

It didn’t matter that Robot didn’t need a Chariot to get around. It didn’t matter that his sensors could pick up almost any energy signal, that his indefatigable strength could outlast any human power cell, that his ability to traverse alien terrains could outmatch their best vehicles. None of that mattered.

 

"Never mind." He looked past her to the unfamiliar adults seated on the couch, the chairs, even standing in the kitchen. His gaze skipped from person to person, each set of narrowed eyes making him feel smaller and more unwanted, like an intruder in his own home. John, Judy, and Penny must already be out there. Adulting on an alien planet. Leaving him alone to face these strangers.

 

The floor groaned behind him; every eye snapped away from Will. Several faces blanched. More than one colonist bolted to their feet. 

 

"Oh, Robot." Maureen glanced over Will's head, back to Will, to the colonists, back to Robot, her distress clear. "I wonder if you could, that is, we’re almost done here. If you could wait--"

 

Without looking, Will reached back and grabbed Robot's wrist, fingertips digging into the grooves between his joints. "He's coming with me. I just need to get dressed and then we'll go."

 

Maureen's expression went blank. Someone whispered something in the kitchen. A tense snicker answered.

 

"Will," Maureen rallied, tugging on the end of her shirt nervously. "Can we talk for a minute?"

 

"We are talking," Will said warily. There was something in the air, some layer of meaning that he couldn’t quite catch, but he could feel a current drifting through the room as though the adults had their own form of telepathy. His fingers clenched harder around Robot’s arm.

 

“Alone?” Maureen smiled nervously at the gathering and tugged Will toward the back hall. “Come to my office. Can Robot wait--”

 

“In my room." After everything he’s done, we are not going to make him stand in the rain! He wished he could shout at her and the rest of them, but apprehension and anger balled up in his throat. He could only glare helplessly at Maureen’s weakening smile.

 

“Yeah, okay,” she sighed. “Come on.”

 

Will didn’t let Robot go until he was safely deposited in his bedroom, where he stood in the middle, glowing and glistening, still wet from the rain. “I’ll be back soon,” Will promised, reluctantly breaking contact. Without that living metal under his hand, he felt a little lost.

 

When had a conversation with his own mother become a source of unease? When had Robot become more comforting than his own family?

 

Will pulled on a clean shirt and then lingered in the doorway to consider Robot’s calm, starry, blue-white face. He seemed content, at least. If the reactions of the colonists bothered him, he didn’t show it. Maybe he could sense Will’s anger and thought Will could fight this battle on his behalf? 

 

I’ll never stop fighting for you , Will thought determinedly. I’m not as strong as you, but I’ll never give up.

 

He followed Maureen down the hall, straightening his shoulders and strengthening his resolve. Whatever happened, he would not surrender this battle.

 

Maureen gestured him into the office and closed the door behind him. “Do you want to sit down?”

 

He leaned a hip on one of the two chairs in front of John and Maureen’s shared desk. Crossed his arms. Stared at her.

 

She sighed and shook her head, fingertips rubbing her temple. “I don’t know how to say this… Do you think it’s, ah, appropriate? To have Robot follow you around everywhere? Into your room? When you’re changing?”

 

Blinking and taken aback, Will felt a flush creep up his neck to his face. He'd expected another lecture on keeping Robot hidden from the colonists, giving them time, blah blah blah. Not this, whatever this was.

 

“I mean, it’s one thing when you’re stuck on a ship together, but on a planet? You don’t think that’s a little… too close?”

 

“He’s my friend,” Will said tightly. How many times did he have to say that before it would sink in? “He’s family,” he added for good measure.

 

“Well, yes, of course. But you’re not… I mean, this goes beyond friend or family, doesn’t it?” 

 

“Yeah,” Will agreed, relaxing. “Exactly.” Finally, someone was beginning to understand.

 

But Maureen didn’t look particularly happy or understanding. She was frowning--that frown she wore when she came across an unexpected problem--and she began to pace, gesturing as she spoke.

 

“It’s… Will, it’s not a good thing. What if you’re preventing Robot from developing on his own? What if he’s doing the same to you? You spent a year traveling with other kids your age and you still barely know any of them! You’re so focused on Robot that you don’t associate with other humans.”

 

Stung, Will flinched and protested, “That’s not true. You weren’t there. I couldn’t get to know any of them--there was so much going on, we were always in danger, and they were always--it was always Robot who helped us, Robot who was there when we needed him, and I... I spoke for him, I helped him understand what was happening, I helped the others understand him . I just never had a chance to get to know anyone.” I didn’t want to , he almost said, but realized that wouldn’t help his case. “We needed Robot. We all did.”

 

He could see a struggle in her expression--sympathy and frustration. She rubbed her forehead and shadowed eyes. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I understand that. Robot has helped all of us. But that doesn’t mean… You don’t have to be his ambassador anymore. That’s what I’m trying to say. The two of you aren’t alone. You can…” She held up her hands, clasped together, and drew them apart. “You can separate a little bit, you know? This close relationship that you have, it’s not--” She cut herself off and tried again. “I just think you could make a few more friends. Maybe, ah, dial down the intensity.”

 

Will tightened his arms, hugging himself. He felt like he was under attack, but he didn’t know how. He could only understand half of what Maureen was saying--he’d done something she didn’t like, but what? What was she talking about? Nothing had changed between him and Robot. Will himself was getting older and Robot was getting more curious, but that just seemed natural. 

 

Unable to think of anything else to say, he muttered, “Gideon’s my friend.”

 

“Because he was assigned to you!” 

 

Any warmth Will had felt drained away. Hurt, he looked away, glaring at his feet. 

 

“Oh, Will, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” Maureen stepped in to clasp his shoulders. 

 

He shook her off and retreated toward the door.

 

“No, please, I know he’s your friend. He seems very nice, and I think he enjoys spending time with you. I just mean, if he hadn’t been your guide at school, would you have even met him? Would you have noticed him?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“And… and now that he is your friend, would you be comfortable with him hanging out in your room while you’re changing?”

 

“What?” Confused, Will shook his head. “We’re in the same physical class, we get changed together all the time.”

 

Maureen barked a short laugh and covered her eyes with a hand. “And your father thought I could talk to you about this…” She scrubbed her face. “Okay, this isn’t going the way I’d hoped, and we have way bigger problems. Let’s talk about it later. It’s just that, well, the other colonists, they see this dangerous alien robot, and then they see my son inviting him back to his room. It… they really take it the wrong way.”

 

What way? I don’t know what you’re talking about. And who cares what they think, anyway? And what were the other options? Our house is full of people who hate him.”

 

“They don’t--Okay, right, let’s… not do this now.” She forced a strained smile, crowded into his space, and put her arms around him. “I didn’t mean to upset you. You’re such a great kid, I shouldn’t listen to--well. Never mind.”

 

Will wanted to ask her what she meant, but even more, he wanted the conversation to be over. “Okay,” he said, trying to hold himself away from her. “Can I go now?”

 

“Yes. I’m sorry.” She stepped back and searched his face. Her sad smile, the one he was used to, reappeared. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “You’re so strong, sometimes I forget how hard the past few years have been on you when no one else was there for you…” Moisture gathered in her eyes.

 

Will flinched back. What was going on?!

 

“I need to go,” he choked out, slamming the door panel to open it. 

 

He escaped to his room, so confused and upset that his own eyes had begun to water. He locked the door behind him and leaned back against it, eyes squeezed shut and breathing slowly to force away his churning, nauseating turmoil. He didn’t understand exactly what Maureen had been trying to say, but had heard the overall message loud and clear: She didn’t want him to be so close with Robot. Neither did John. Neither did the other colonists, apparently.

 

What’s wrong with me? Why did something that seemed so normal to him make the others so uncomfortable? 

 

He didn’t have to open his eyes to feel the huge presence draw near and stop in front of him. Pressure built in the back of his mind and he welcomed it the same way he would welcome one of Robot’s surprisingly gentle, comforting hugs.

 

A bizarre vision appeared behind his eyelids. He saw himself from above--small, ashen, slouched against the door, shaggy hair in disarray. The image flickered from a familiar spectrum to infrared, to thermal, to a stream of pure information--distances, angles, height and frequency of photon waves, radiation, minute vibrations in the atomic milieu, energy readings that Will had no hope of understanding.

 

Every piece of information triggered a cascade of processes--thoughts, maybe. Will sensed them like he might sense the shifting of tectonic plates--he could feel the faintest tremor, but with the knowledge that far below it, titanic forces were at work. The surface thoughts seemed to be an observation that Will’s current condition did not match his usual status, curiosity, concern. Several sub-processes were cycling through environmental observations, searching for a possible cause. Others were reviewing recordings of the past several minutes, and Will almost heard whispers of Robot’s memories as he replayed the conversation at the front of the house. When he couldn’t arrive at an answer, he moved closer and activated a thousand tiny actuators to raise his arm and extend two claws to touch Will’s hair.

 

Will reached up and caught Robot’s hand before it touched him, and the vision did the same. He watched himself smile, felt a reverberation of feedback--for a moment he felt Robot’s metal fingers against his palm, and simultaneously received pressure, warmth, moisture, and chemical input from his peripheral limb sensors. And beyond the physical sensations were emotional--his own happiness met Robot’s and--

 

The image of Will abruptly collapsed, its knees buckling.

 

Will got to experience a moment of lightning-fast processing and then he was blinking his eyes open. He looked up from the floor to meet Robot’s worried, jagged bursts where he crouched over Will’s crumpled form.

 

He laughed weakly and struggled to sit up. Gentle hands slid under his elbow and around his waist. 

 

“That was intense,” he managed once he’d made it upright. He grinned; his confusion and self-doubt had completely reversed into a sense of wonder. “It’s never been so clear before.” He felt a throb of gratitude that Robot had shared so much with him. “Thank you.”

 

Robot’s concern warmed into his usual contented rings and thoughtful nebulae. He looked Will over and put a small amount of pressure in the curve of his back, as though asking if he could stand.

 

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Will gripped Robot’s shoulder and got back to his feet. He shook his head and found it to be true; other than a fatigued sensation behind his eyes, as though he’d just completed a particularly difficult exam, he felt good. Not even a headache. “I think I’m getting used to it.”

 

Robot stood as well, his movements smooth. Watching him, Will remembered how complex it had been just to move an arm. He really was amazing. Will ran idle fingertips over Robot’s articulated abdominal plates, lost in thought, still mulling over the impressions he’d received of Robot’s sensory capabilities. He sensed everything , and then processed and acted within milliseconds. 

 

“You’re so cool,” he finally sighed and rested his forehead on the smooth center of Robot’s chest. “I don’t know what everyone’s problem is. I’m sorry you have to put up with this.” He shook his head, rolling his brow on the warm metal. He almost complained about Maureen’s strange comments but didn’t want to bother Robot with them when he didn’t completely understand himself what she’d been going on about. 

 

They weren’t too close, were they? No one else had been friends with one of Robot’s species before Will, so how could they judge? He was the first. They were the first. So they made the rules.

 

They weren’t keeping each other from forming other relationships. Robot had a job. Will had school. Everything was as normal as it could be when they were both aliens living on a new planet. 

 

His mom didn’t know what she was talking about.

 

He didn’t care what the colonists thought.

 

Will breathed deeply, drawing in the scent of wet metal and regaining his equilibrium. He took stock of himself, standing close to Robot. Annoyance at the adults in the house mingled with growing awareness of Robot’s proximity and what had happened the last time they’d stood in this position.

 

If everyone was worried about what happened when Will was alone with Robot, anyway, then it didn’t matter what they did together in the name of science.

 

He cleared his throat and focused on a scuff on Robot’s shoulder.

 

“Um. You know that thing we did last night? Would you want to do that again?”

 

Will wasn’t sure what he was expecting. He’d made the offer half out of vindictiveness and half because he was already experiencing the physiological rush from the memory of how great he’d felt on Robot’s couch. He almost expected Robot to have lost interest--how interesting could human masturbation be to an alien pilot, explorer, and warrior of Robot's caliber? 

 

He did not expect the immediate slide of fingers up under the back of his shirt and a tickle of claws running through his hair.

 

Already sensitive, Will jumped and laughed, squirming as Robot’s wrist made his shirt rise. “I’ll take that as a yes?”

 

“Yes,” Robot agreed, voice low. His white stars deepened to purple when Will met his gaze. The fingers in Will’s hair drifted down to his shoulder and down his arm. His goosebumps returned in full force, his knees weakened in that familiar way that meant most of his body’s blood and attention had redirected to his groin, a rush of heat prickled up the back of his neck and conjured sweat under his hair. He shivered, startled by Robot’s strong response and his own reaction. 

 

“Okay, ah…” He pulled reluctantly out of Robot’s grasp and looked around. He hadn’t really thought this through… Robot couldn’t go on the furniture. Would it be weird for Will to lie on his bed and Robot would just stand and watch? Maybe he could sit next to the bed? Or they could both sit on the floor--it would be almost like Robot’s broken couch.

 

His shirt resumed its crawl as Robot pulled it up. Will almost tugged it back down--he didn’t need to take it off for this--but Robot didn’t ask for things very often. He raised his arms, allowing Robot to tug the garment over his head, and then sighed in pleasure as six claws roved freely over his back and shoulders. Robot’s other hand nudged his hip, directing him toward his bed. 

 

“Over there? Yeah, okay.” Will’s mind was already getting a bit foggy. At least he was beginning to recognize the reactions in his own body--what had been overwhelming and almost frightening the previous night was becoming relatively normal. Natural. It was natural for him to feel both stiff and liquidy. Like some kind of non-Newtonian fluid flowed through his veins. 

 

He stumbled to his bed and sat heavily on the edge, putting his eyes on a level with Robot’s plated thighs. His blush deepened--should he ask if Robot did anything like this? It was only polite to share, right? And he was definitely curious.

 

Before he could think about it too hard, Robot crouched in front of him and gently pressed his shoulder.

 

“Okay,” he breathed. “Sure.” He laid back and wriggled up to his pillows. He couldn’t pull his gaze away from Robot’s face--the previous night, he hadn’t been looking at Robot while doing this, he hadn’t seen the rapid clustering and bursting of stars. Was he… excited? Happy? More than scientifically curious?

 

Did it matter? 

 

Robot didn’t hesitate to stroke Will from shoulder to hip, similar to the slow caresses that had driven Will mad during that awful, yet memorable, romance movie. He moved purposefully, claws spiraling over Will’s narrow chest and stomach, circling his nipples, tracing his collarbones, outlining his thin muscles, bumping over his ribs, dipping into his navel, mapping a path between his hips.

 

Will kicked and writhed and shoved a blanket into his mouth to muffle his laughter. When he couldn’t stand it anymore, he gasped in a hoarse whisper, “Stop, stop, it tickles too much!”

 

The claws withdrew. Robot’s head tilted. 

 

After a few heaving breaths, Will was able to speak again. “It feels nice, but it was a little too much. A lot of humans are ticklish here,” he indicated his sides, “and you’re really good at it. We should maybe tell everyone that. As good as you are at fighting, you’re better at this. Maybe they’ll stop being so scared.” He rolled on his side and propped his head on a palm. “Why do you like touching me so much, anyway?”

 

Robot’s fingertip slid down his free arm and goosebumps followed, lifting the tiny hairs on Will’s forearm. 

 

Will laughed when he realized Robot’s intention. “Because of my reactions? I guess my senses are a lot different than yours. Do you feel it, too?” He thought he knew the answer, but had never asked what Robot experienced across their connection.

 

“Yes.” Robot drew a symbol on Will’s inner wrist, leaving a thin white line, and Will recognized it from Robot’s arm before it faded. He drew another--it almost stung, but not quite, and sent a quiver down his spine.

 

“That’s cool,” Will said, swallowing to wet his suddenly dry mouth. “So, when I do this…” He slid his fingers beneath his waistband, backs of his nails dragging over the sensitive skin beside his hipbone where he especially liked to touch himself. His body responded rapidly, his quickening pulse driving blood down to swell his flesh.

 

Robot watched his hand and then lifted his face to meet Will’s gaze. The weight in Will’s mind--a presence so familiar he barely noticed it anymore--strengthened. Will caught another flash of himself: laid out on his bed, shirtless and flushed, hand down his pants, a small smirk on his lips, but it faded quickly. The image was unexpectedly arousing. Will had never considered himself to be especially attractive, not like Don or Gideon, but his desire spiked, making him gasp and shudder.

 

“Okay,” he breathed, mostly to himself. “Wow, that’s…” At a loss for words, he thought about something Gideon would say. Gideon seemed to have more experience in this area. “Hot,” he finally said. “And… fascinating. Scientifically. Oh…” His hand seemed to have a mind of its own, reaching deeper and cupping his hard erection through his briefs, thumb rubbing over the wet spot where he was already leaking.

 

Robot tugged on Will’s trousers, almost delicately pulling on the fastener. When it didn’t immediately give way, he pulled harder.

 

Will chuckled. “Yeah, okay, you want to see. Like this.” He awkwardly got the fastener open and started wiggling his trousers down, but Robot beat him to it, both hands settling on Will’s hips, thumbs hooking into the waistband to shove both trousers and Will’s briefs halfway down his thighs.

 

Startled and suddenly exposed, Will froze, unsure of what to do. Then he saw claws descending toward his most delicate parts and he hastily grabbed himself. “I’ll do it!” he squeaked. 

 

The claws redirected to Will’s bare hip, where they drew more patterns and seemed to experiment with the skin, raising more goosebumps. 

 

Will’s surprise quickly vanished, overcome by another headrush. He sank back against his pillows with a sigh, more than a little dizzy. His palm and fingers moved automatically in a familiar rhythm, met by the slow rolling of his pelvis. Bold, cool fingertips wandered over his exposed skin, giving him alternating chills and hot flashes, shocking him with little stings when Robot drew a symbol on his thigh, and then on his belly, on his chest. He’d have to ask what they meant when he could think straight.

 

“Ah,” he sighed as his thighs began to tremble and heat pooled in the base of his erection. He gathered a fistful of blanket again and bit down on it to muffle his groans.

 

A heavy palm pressed low on his belly and the weight triggered a spasm. He thrust up against Robot’s palm and into his own hand, gasping into his blanket as he came.

 

He fell back, panting, damp arm flopping over his eyes. 

 

“So much better with you,” he said when he could talk again. He cracked an eye open and saw Robot examining his wrist and the pearly liquid glistening on the dark metal. “Oh, sorry! That’s so--” He almost said “gross”, but his voice died because the emotion he actually felt was far, far from disgusted. Intrigued, maybe. Interested. Hot , suggested Will’s inner Gideon. For a very brief, embarrassing moment, Will imagined what Robot would look like with it dripping down his sculpted abdominal plates, and he hurriedly shoved the thought away before Robot could see it.

 

After a few more deep breaths to recover, he urged himself upright.

 

“We’d better get moving. Thanks for, you know, helping me feel better.” His smile came easily. He really did feel better, all the tension from his uncomfortable talk with Maureen, gone. Along with the reminders of the colony’s opinions on Robot. He was concerned about the engineers and the searchers, but that problem was well out of his control. 

 

He cleaned them both as well as he could with only a dirty shirt, jumped into some clean clothes, and then poked his head out cautiously. He almost expected those two dozen critical eyes to turn toward him in accusation for what he’d just done. The house appeared empty, thankfully, so he and Robot crowded into the bathroom to wash up. He ate breakfast under Robot’s watchful eye, checked his messages, scoffed at Maureen’s reminder to stay in the colony, sent notes to Penny and Judy to let him know what was going on and how he could help, and then arrived back at the front door.

 

“Well,” he said to Robot once he’d pulled on his boots and shrugged into his jacket. “You want to go check out the hothouses?”

 

Robot shrugged. 

 

“Can you think of anything better to do?” Will pressed.

 

Robot closed the space between them, fingers playing at the hem of Will’s jacket.

 

Will laughed and backed away. “Yeah, okay. I need some time to recharge, remember.” He reached up to tap on Robot’s chest. “You need to show me how to do that to you . Friendship is a two-way street, right?”

 

Robot caught his hand and held it against his plates. He shifted closer, forcing Will back against the door. The air around him became almost menacing, his stars darkening and whirling in an aggressive ellipse, the spikes on his back lifting.

 

Will held his breath as his heart pulsed against his throat. “Robot?” he croaked, his mouth dry.

 

Then Robot stepped back, releasing him. His face returned to its bright patterns as though the moment had never occurred. He gestured at the door.

 

“Okay.” Shakily, Will opened it and stepped out, wondering what had just happened. 

 

**

 

The colony hothouses had been built as part of the original settlement, almost directly opposite from the Robinsons’ house. Will checked the map on his comm, decided that five kilometers wasn’t that far to walk even with the cool drizzle, and started off at a brisk pace. Robot strode easily beside him. When they passed the depot, Will reaffirmed his decision--he was too young to sign out a Chariot, even if they weren’t being used by the search parties, and if he checked out one of the small, personal scooters, that would leave Robot to run alongside like a big, mechanical dog. 

 

The colony seemed unusually quiet and Will wondered how many people had gone out to look for the missing engineers. He felt a little pang of frustration that he hadn’t been allowed to join the search--as though the past two years hadn’t happened and he was relegated back to “useless child” status. Hadn’t he proven himself enough?

 

Comfortingly, he did spot several kids his own age and even older, so he wasn’t the only one. They were in a group headed for the central market and either didn’t notice him or pretended not to, as they continued on their path down a cross street without acknowledgment.

 

He entered an aged residential area and gazed with interest at the decorations and gardens that had begun to appear on the houses. Some colonists had transplanted those spires of black fungus to grow on their lawns, adding a touch of the alien to the otherwise mundane appearance of the colony. He passed a few very young or very old colonists bundled in hooded coats, most of whom watched them go by with the usual apprehension. One young child pointed and said something to their guardian, who quickly forced their hand back down. 

 

The houses abruptly stopped at the end of a street, replaced by hulking glass buildings, their windows thick with condensation. Will smiled to himself, already looking forward to seeing a friendly face.

 

He wandered around the buildings for a time, trying to find an entrance, distracted by the humming machinery and the half-hidden plantlife he could see inside. He explained the purposes of hothouses to Robot as they walked, rambled about the garden he and Penny had tried to cultivate on Earth before they left and how their careful calculations of nitrogen cycles and vegetable pairings had been completely wasted because raccoons ate almost everything, anyway, and Will found out too late that he didn’t actually like beans and heirloom carrots.

 

“The information came in handy on the water planet, at least,” he said with a shrug as he slogged around a corner. “I guess no knowledge is truly wasted.”

 

“Will!” A faint call caught his attention. He turned, squinting into the misty rain and gloom, and finally saw a pale figure jogging toward him. It resolved itself into Gideon, wearing a translucent plastic coat, black hair slicked away from his face, dirt-smudged across his cheek, and slowly dripping down to his chin. 

 

The usual lurch at seeing Gideon’s Ben-like features hit him harder than normal-- the rain was an onslaught outside the Jupiter, a roar from the blackness when Ben opened the cargo doors, drenching him in an instant --and Will backpedaled, blinking rapidly, nausea twisting his stomach and his chest squeezing, restricting his breaths to difficult, shallow panting. 

 

“Will,” he said again as he drew near, voice coming from a distance. “Didn’t you hear me?”

 

Will tried to say something, but no sound emerged.

 

He’s dead. He’s dead and I’m going to die, too. I can’t do anything. I can never do anything. I can’t save myself. I can’t protect my friends. I can’t, I can’t--

 

Glistening blue-black metal broke Will’s line of sight. He gasped for air and dropped to his knees, fingers digging into the fleshy Proxima Centauri grass. There hadn’t been grass on the water planet. 

 

They’d made it. 

 

They were okay. 

 

Everything was fine.

 

“Woah there, uh, Robot. It’s me. Do you remember me? Gideon Adler? We played games together last night? You looked hot in a short skirt and revived me about fifty times?”

 

Gideon’s voice gradually penetrated past the ringing in Will’s ears. He looked up, blinking away hot tears and cold rain, and saw Robot blocking Gideon’s path with an extended hand. 

 

Robot. Just the sight of him eased the agony in Will’s chest. Robot was free. He wasn’t shackled to the Rift drive. He wasn’t being tortured. He was fine.

 

Gideon might not be if Will didn’t act soon, though. 

 

He stumbled back to his feet and hurried to Robot’s side to catch his wrist. “It’s okay,” he said weakly, relieved when Robot lowered his arm. “It’s okay. It’s just Gideon.” He forced a smile. “Hey, Gid. How are you?”

 

“Wet.” Gideon frowned. “I’ve been chasing your oblivious ass since you passed the maintenance door--are you okay?”

 

The chill, damp, and bad memories combined to make him shiver. “I’m fine. S-sorry I didn’t hear you. I guess the rain was too loud?” He glanced at Robot, who could probably hear an insect crawling from a kilometer away, and rolled his eyes at the completely innocent constellations flowing on his face. 

 

“Whatever. You’re here! Welcome to the hot houses.” Gideon swept in to take his place on Will’s other side. “You look like shit, though. I thought you were feeling better already?”

 

“Yeah. Can we go inside?”

 

“Of course! Come on--” Gideon cut off with a grunt. 

 

A rustle of polypropylene directly behind Will’s head made him aware that Gideon had just tried to wrap him in his usual one-armed hug. Robot’s arm settled on his shoulders instead and Will nearly collapsed under the weight.

 

“Ugh,” he groaned, “Robot?” The arm slid down to his waist, supporting him instead, and Will laughed. “Thanks.” When he looked up, Gideon was blinking and eyeing them, brows pulling together. Suddenly nervous--was this when Gideon, too, would start to think something was wrong with Will and Robot’s relationship?--Will nodded. “Ready?”

 

“Of course…” Gideon backed away a step and jerked a thumb behind him. “This way.”

 

Gideon led them to a nondescript metal door and entered a number code to gain access. They shuffled into a narrow, dim entryway, forced to go single file, and a hot, humid atmosphere enveloped Will. The extreme change threatened to suffocate him; he set a hand on a slick steel wall to steady himself, sucking in pained lungfuls of air. When he heard thudding steps behind him, he forced himself to move on.

 

“It’s a bit to get used to,” Gideon said once the door had slammed shut behind them. “Like a sauna, my mum says. Apparently it’s good for your complexion, in case that’s ever a thing that you worry about.”

 

That had never been a thing that Will worried about. “Okay,” he wheezed.

 

“Maybe get your jacket off, mate.” Gideon wedged himself up to join Will. “I’ll take it.”

 

“No, it’s okay.” Will unzipped it and let it slump down his arms. The air against his bare skin scarcely made a difference, but he managed a shaky smile as he folded it over his arm. “Lead on.”

 

Gideon pulled off his translucent raincoat, revealing his shirtless torso, and hung it up on a row of hooks with other coats. “This is the maintenance section,” he said as he led them to another door, and then a windowless corridor lit by sunken amber lights. “These are the machine rooms.” He nodded at some numbered doors. “You got water systems, air systems, cooling systems, heating systems, electrical, etcetera. But the real cool stuff is out here.”

 

The door at the end expelled them into a large, brightly lit area and Will’s breath caught again, this time in wonder. The place smelled like Earth . He hadn’t even realized that Earth had a smell until he stepped into the one place on Proxima Centauri designed to mimic Earth’s atmosphere and chemical makeup, where Earth plants exhaled oxygen scented with Earth chlorophyll, a scent he had apparently been starving for.

 

Beds of soil stretched away from them, containing neat rows of grain crops. Far in the distance, Will thought he could see the tops of trees. Banks of lights glowed, suspended from the glass ceiling. A breeze shivered the grains in front of them and finally cooled Will’s moist skin, coming from a bank of human-sized fans roaring on the other side of the huge space.

 

“Wow.”

 

“It’s all right if you like this kind of thing,” Gideon smirked. “You look like you haven’t seen a greenhouse before.”

 

“No, it... it reminds me of my grandma’s ranch. In the spring, when it rains and everything’s wet and green.” He blinked rapidly and turned away so Gideon wouldn’t see his eyes water. The smells brought back the memories in such a terribly visceral way, reminding him of everything he’d left behind, reminding him that Earth, their home, was dying, along with anything still struggling to survive on its surface.

 

After his episode outside, he wasn’t sure he was strong enough to force the unwanted reaction away.

 

“Yeah. Some people come here just to hang out and get, you know, centered or whatever. We have a yoga class every Sunday if you want to join.”

 

Will stared steadily at the nearest external wall, watching rivulets of condensation drip into a steel channel on the floor. His throat tightened and his eyes burned. Come on , he urged himself. Shake it off. After everything you’ve been through, a greenhouse is not going to make you cry. 

 

Robot’s gentle hands cupped his shoulders, but the comforting touch threatened to push him over--Will jerked out of his grasp and stepped away.

 

“Is something over there?” Gideon came abreast of him, sounding confused. 

 

“Wh-where does that water go?” Will asked thickly, pointing a shaking hand at the channel. Or what he thought was the channel--his vision was too blurry to make it out.

 

“It just goes back into the water system for recirculation. Are you sure you’re okay?”

 

Will pressed his lips together to hide their trembling and nodded. “Mm.”

 

After a moment, Gideon retreated. “Well, uh, let me know if you need anything. How about I take you on the world tour? I can even feed you. But then I need to get back to work. Them credits don’t make themselves.”

 

Will nodded again.

 

Gideon’s bootsteps drew away. Will took a few shaky breaths and followed, Robot thudding close behind him.

 

The hothouses must have covered several acres. Gideon showed them his favourite climate zones and gave a quick history of how they’d been built over the years, the sequence of priorities. “The first waves lived on soy and caffeine,” he remarked. “Explains a lot about some of the later design choices, I think.”

 

In a hothouse devoted to tea plants, he gestured at a flat area in the middle decorated with a few spiritual statuettes of various backgrounds. “The yoga room. Sometimes I come, but I only do the cool poses.”

 

Will stared, trying to figure it out, and finally blurted, “What’s yoga?”

 

Gideon lifted a brow. His gaze flicked down and up. He smiled slowly. “It’s all about flexibility. I would love to show you sometime.”

 

In another building full of low green plants, he spidered up a scaffold on one side to check a mechanical array. “This is the soy room,” he called down. “The climate control computer’s so old and degraded by the moisture that I spend half my time fixing it. I’d hook it up to the main computer but, well, I like fixing this problem more than shoveling manure, you know?” He winked under his arm as he reset some cabling. “Don’t tell my mum, okay?”

 

“Your secret is safe with us,” Will replied solemnly.

 

Halfway through one of the walkways to another building, Gideon’s comm chimed. He looked at it, grunted, and answered, “Hey, mum.”

 

“Gid, I need you back at the house,” came a woman’s voice. “You know how to get your father’s drones to work, right?”

 

“They’re my drones now,” he corrected, his posture visibly tightening, bare shoulders lifting. “Yeah, I can get them to fly.” 

 

“And send video?”



“Mmhmm.”

 

“Good. Come back, then. Command needs all available drones out on a search.”

 

“A search for what?”

 

“I’ll tell you when you get here.” The call ended abruptly, leaving Gideon frowning at his wrist.

 

“Missing colonists,” Will guessed. “My dad’s engineers.”

 

Gideon’s brows jumped. “Well, shit, what are we doing here then? Shouldn’t everyone be searching?”

 

“I don’t think they have enough Chariots to send everyone. I was told to stay out of it, anyway.”

 

Gideon glanced at Robot and back at Will. “Let’s go,” he said, instead of whatever thoughts were working behind his eyes. “You want to see my workshop?”

Chapter Text

12

 

Gideon led them to a much larger and fancier entryway and ducked into a small room. Through a window, Will watched him towel off and pull on a sleeveless, belted shirt and light jacket, and finger comb his hair into damp spikes. When he emerged, he nodded at the double glass doors at the end. “This way.”

 

The doors opened onto a path leading back to the residential area, and Will wondered how he had missed it when he’d arrived. 

 

Gideon abandoned the path and arrowed across the low black grass toward one of the nearest houses. Will took in the small outbuilding in the back, the pile of metallic debris stacked up against one wall, the random sports equipment on the grass, the three printed chairs in a half-circle around a stone pit. Ferns flourished in a bed alongside the house. It looked like an ordinary Earth yard, like his own or his friends’.

 

“Here we are,” Gideon said as he stepped up to a door at the back. “Home sweet home.” He triggered it to open and gestured for Will to follow him inside. “Mum?” he called. “I’m here.”

 

The house looked similar to Robot’s, though the walls were painted and pictures hung here and there, and the floor was a different material. Will stepped nervously into a small mudroom and pulled off his boots before following Gideon into the long corridor that ran the house’s length. They passed the bedrooms--Will had to force himself not to peek, though he burned with curiosity--and the bathroom, and then emerged into the kitchen and living room space. 

 

They found a tall woman in the kitchen, presumably Gideon’s mother, leaning against the counter and frowning down at a tablet. Will immediately noticed similarities with Les, from their olive skin to the set of their eyes. Grey hairs peppered her short black curls, and she gave off an air of competence--like most of the colonists, she was on Proxima Centauri for a reason.

 

“Of course you can borrow them,” she was saying into her comm, “I just don’t know how helpful they’ll be. They’re glorified forklifts, not construction machines. I’m looking at the topography of the area now, and I don’t think they’ll make it over the--holy shit!” She glanced up at Gideon, already lifting a hand to gesture him over, and jumped back, dropping her tablet. Her warm complexion paled and dark eyes widened as she forced herself against the counter behind her.

 

Will didn’t have to look to know what had frightened her so badly.

 

“Hey, Mum,” Gideon chirped. “This is Will and Robot. I was giving them a tour of the hothouses when you called. They’re here for lunch.”

 

Get it out ,” she wheezed. “Get it out of the house.”

 

Even Gideon seemed taken aback. He froze, rocked back on his heels, and looked over his shoulder at Will and Robot. His surprise quickly shifted into annoyance, and he frowned at his mother. “Mum, they’re my company.”

 

OUT .” Her hand shook as she pointed at the door. Her fierce, red-rimmed glare shifted to Will. “This is my home, and you are not welcome here. If you don’t get out now, I’ll call security.”

 

“Mum, what the fuck--” Gideon started, his voice rising. 

 

Will grabbed his arm. “It’s okay,” he said, feeling a sense of deja vu. Hadn’t he just broken up another building argument? “It’s okay,” he said again. “We’ll go. You’ve got more important things to deal with.”

 

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Gideon snapped, whirling on him. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right out. We’ll go to my shop.”

 

“I don’t want that thing on my property!” his mother snarled. “Your father’s workshop--”

 

“It’s my workshop ,” Gideon countered, matching her volume. “He gave it to me when he fucking abandoned us here, so it’s mine .”

 

“He didn’t abandon us! He saved thousands of people--”

 

“You mean he sacrificed his family for thousands of strangers!”

 

“Don’t make this about you, Gideon. It’s not about you!”

 

“I know! It’s never about me. And that’s fucking great. It’s fucking great that it has nothing to do with me, but you still think you can tell me who my friends should be.”

 

“That thing is a monster! That boy is deranged! What the hell are you thinking, bringing them into the house!”  

 

Will backed away down the corridor, urgently pushing Robot with his hip, wishing he could plug his ears. So much anger flowed through the air, he was having trouble breathing again. When they reached the door, he didn’t bother with his boots, just picked them up, and stumbled out into the wet grass in just his socks.

 

Am I deranged?

 

He couldn’t get Gideon’s mother’s voice and expression out of his head. She didn’t look scared, not like the other colonists. She looked furious.  

 

Does she know?  

 

If she knew what Ben had been doing...  if she knew how he’d died…

 

But why wouldn’t she tell Gideon?

 

Will shuffled to one of the three chairs, collapsed into it, and leaned his head back to let the cold drizzle fall on his eyelids. He was too exhausted to focus on the question, tired of fighting and holding himself back from conflict. He was tired of being the peacekeeper, tired of giving in. Tired of the constant barrage of memories and grief. This was supposed to be a new life, a new world. So why had his old life followed him? Why did he feel it breathing down his neck, sinking in its fangs, a constant reminder of his weaknesses and failures and everything he’d lost…

 

A metal knuckle pressed against his cheek. Will looked up to see Robot gazing down at him. He played a green aurora across his face, shifted it to blue and pink. 

 

Will grasped Robot’s hand and fought a surge of tears. He squeezed his eyes shut. What was wrong with him? His best friend was trying to make him feel better, and all he could do was cry?

 

The door banged open. 

 

“This is such fucking rubbish!” Gideon shouted into the quiet, making Will jump. “Shit. SHIT!

 

Will shrank into his chair, wishing he’d just left. He didn’t want to cause any more trouble…

 

Gideon stomped over and kicked one of the chairs. It crashed into a pile of scrap metal. The other chair swiftly followed, and one of the legs snapped off, spinning up into the air. He whirled on Will, eyes blazing, a red mark standing out on his cheek. 

 

“Gid,” Will choked, cringing into his chair. “I’m sorry--”

 

“Don’t apologize,” Gideon growled. “I’m going to show you my fucking shop, so get your ass over here. And put your fucking boots on!”

 

“Okay.” Will hurriedly bent to wrestle them onto his wet feet.

 

When he and Robot joined him at the door to the outbuilding, Gideon had quieted, arms folded and his glare burning a hole into the soggy ground. “Didn’t mean for you to see that,” he muttered. “I don’t know what the fuck my mum’s problem was. Fucking rude.”

 

I think I know. Will ached to tell him, but his voice froze on the words.

 

After a beat of silence, Gideon glanced up. Whatever he saw on Will’s face made him soften, his arms loosen, his jaw work side to side. The edge of a smile stretched his thin lips. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “C’mere.” When Will didn’t move, he closed the distance and caught Will around the shoulders. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I like how deranged you are. And Robot’s the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, even if he makes me want to piss myself sometimes. In a good way.”

 

“Uh.” Will blinked. “You can want to piss yourself in a good way?”

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

Will had no idea what he meant.

 

“Okay, now the best part.” Gideon didn’t release him, but urged him next to the door to trigger it to open. 

 

Lights flickered on inside, revealing a single room walled with utility shelving. A large work table stood to one side, covered in bits of vaguely recognizable computer parts, machinery, and what looked like a humanoid robotic arm, a computer console, and a projector affixed to the wall behind it. The bitter, burnt scent of solder and hot plastic stung Will’s nose. Two stools stood nearby, and a large, bright green cushion in one corner looked comfortable enough to sleep on. Will snorted when he noticed a small fridge and toaster, a few dirty plates and empty Centaurian cola bottles. There were some pictures on the wall: a few of old Earth scientists, one of a crystalline quantum computing processor, one of a rather muscular man wearing nothing but a flight jacket and a smile, and one of a stylized video game character. That indicated two people had called this space their own.

 

This is your home,” Will surmised, tentatively moving into the middle. Robot thudded in behind him.

 

“Damn straight.” Gideon passed him, spun on his heel, and fell backward onto the green cushion with a fwoomp and a squeak. “Welcome to my lair. Consider yourself fortunate--no one else gets to come in.”

 

“Cool.”

 

“Yeah.” Gideon’s usual humor seemed to be returning. He grinned and pointed at the fridge. “Help yourself to something. I was hoping to give you real food, from a real aggie’s kitchen, but, well…”

 

“What’s an aggie?” Will, so hungry that he was a little unsteady, crouched in front of the fridge. Most of the food was meat-based, but he was able to find some potato sticks with a bit of digging.

 

“Agriculturalist. You know. Food makers.” Gideon’s knee vibrated rapidly until he jumped up and paced to his table. “I better get my drones in the air. You wanna hang out while I work?”

 

“Of course.” Will took his snack to the vacated cushion and settled into it, pleased when it enveloped him like a big, soft, squeaky hug. 

 

Robot slowly stepped around the room, examining the shelves and their contents, seemingly content to leave the other two to their conversation. 

 

Gideon worked in silence for a time, collecting three skeletal looking black drones from his shelves, digging around in a box to find washers, unplugging cables from an entirely different machine, snapping together the rotors. Will watched with interest as he ate, comforted by Gideon’s puttering. He could imagine himself bringing his homework here and sitting around while Gideon worked.

 

A pulse of pain under his sternum made him drop his potato sticks and grab his chest. “What-” The pain wasn’t physical, he realized after a moment of palpating the spot. It was… something else.

 

He sought out Robot and found him standing in front of a shelf near the back, staring at something. He struggled out of the cushion and joined him.

 

“What is it?” he asked, pitching his voice low.

 

Robot didn’t move, but sparks of red and yellow fizzled among his nebulae. 

 

Will hopped up to get a better look, didn’t see anything, and finally climbed up on the lowest shelf to peek over the edge. “I don’t see--” he started, and then his voice died. There, mixed in with bits of angle iron, a box of screws, and wire splitters was a section of articulated plates in a reddish metal. “Oh,” he gusted, dropping down. “Oh. Damn.”

 

Robot stood silently, his gaze fixed.

 

Will watched him, his heart aching, pained by the reminder of all that Scarecrow had suffered. He reached out and carefully held a few of Robot’s fingers, saddening further when there was no response.

 

“Just… just a minute,” he said, backing away. 

 

Gideon had plugged one of the drones into his computer and was running through some program updates when Will sidled next to him and cleared his throat. He looked up and smiled warmly. “Hey.”

 

“Hey, uh, Gid. There’s… there’s some cool red metal on that shelf. Can I have it?”

 

“Red metal?” Gideon glanced at the shelf and Robot’s unmoving figure, and then went back to scrolling through the drone’s output. “Huh. That’s all just junk my dad picked up over the years. What do you want it for?”

 

“A decoration. You’ve seen my room.”

 

“Mate, I could make shit for your room. You don’t need to throw random rubbish in there.”

 

Will felt more than saw Robot stiffen. Hurriedly, he said, “I really like it. Please?”

 

Gideon swiveled on his stool to face him directly. He spun back and forth as he examined Will’s face in that slow, heavy-lidded way that he had at times, that made Will shift nervously, wondering what he was looking at. 

 

“Sure,” he finally said. “It’s yours.”

 

“Thank you,” Will sighed, bracing himself against the table as relief weakened him. 

 

“It’s no big deal.” 

 

Will lingered for a moment, struggling with a strong wish that he could just come clean about Ben and Scarecrow until Gideon gave a short nod and returned to his work. He returned to Robot and placed what he hoped was a comforting hand on his arm. Did Robot gain strength from this contact the way that he did? 

 

“Let’s take it to your house,” he said quietly. “For when we meet him again.” They would have to meet him again. Will refused to believe otherwise. “Can you get it? Or do you want me to?”

 

Robot finally tilted his face down. His other hand rose, and he held it, claws outstretched, near the shelf, unmoving.

 

Sympathy squeezed Will’s heart. “I’ll get him.” He analyzed the shelf, and, considering that he was about to touch an alien’s body part, slid out of his damp jacket. He slung it over his arm, climbed up the shelf, and carefully transferred the piece of Scarecrow into his warm coat. It was surprisingly heavy, and he flinched when it seemed to wiggle. It was so smoothly articulated that it bent and twisted without resistance. After a moment’s study, Will recognized it as part of an arm.

 

“Oh, Ben,” he whispered. “What did you do?” He could only hope that it had come off in Scarecrow’s crash and not been removed. But the perfectly smooth edges did not fill him with hope.

 

He stepped down and carefully folded his jacket around its precious burden. When he leaned against Robot, Robot’s normal response of welcoming him in his arm’s curve made Will breathe another sigh of relief. 

 

They were going to be okay.

 

“Hey, you want to watch me send these up?” Gideon called.

 

Will and Robot turned, and Will noticed another confused frown on Gideon’s face as he looked at them. Then he gave his head a jerk and spun back to his table where the three drones crouched. 

 

“Yeah,” Will said wearily, though he had started to think he just wanted to go back to bed. He pulled away from Robot reluctantly and nestled his jacket in the big green cushion before joining Gideon. 

 

“Cool. Can you get these?” He grasped Will's hands, fingers warm and firm, and placed a drone’s body in each. “Don’t drop them.”

 

They carried them outside, where the drizzle continued.

 

“Will they fly in this?” Will wondered, cradling his drones carefully, surprised by their lightness and fragility. 

 

"Sure. Probably. Maybe." Gideon flashed a wet grin. “Let’s find out.” He set his drone on the one intact chair, worked on his comm, and two of the three rotors abruptly whirred to life. He stopped it with a muttered curse, fiddled with the unresponsive rotor, and started it up again. This time it jumped into the air, rose to a height of about four meters, and hovered. “Fuck yeah,” he cheered quietly. He brought it down to land neatly back on the chair and traded it for one of Will’s.

 

He went through the same routine with the other two, retreating into his shop to get another part for the third one. By the time he’d finished, Will’s shirt had soaked through and he was shivering, making the tips of the drones’ rotors quiver. 

 

“All right, they’re ready to go. Now I’m supposed to call Command for instructions…” He trailed off as he seemed to see Will for the first time since they’d left the shop. His dark gaze tracked down Will’s chest and he went very still. Then he gave his head a shake, scattering droplets from his chin and hair, and cursed again, “Aw, Will, what the fuck, mate? Why aren’t you wearing your jacket?” He dragged a flat sheet of metal onto the grass to give the other two drones a landing place, collected them from Will, and returned, frowning. “You forget how to deal with rain while you were stuck in space?”

 

Will, his arms freed, hugged himself. “I’m fine,” he said, not wanting to explain why he’d abandoned his jacket. 

 

“Yeah, okay. You’ve been a mess since you got here.” Gideon directed him back into the shop. “Even before my mum freaked out. You want to share?”

 

“There’s nothing to share.”

 

“Mm. Robot, can’t you keep Will from killing himself?”

 

Robot looked up from Gideon’s table, where he was investigating the robotic arm and hand.

 

“Don’t touch that,” Gideon said. “I’m working on an AI; you’ll give it an inferiority complex if it sees you.”

 

Robot’s cosmic stare didn’t leave Gideon as he reached out and touched the hand. It responded by extending its middle finger.

 

“See? It doesn’t like you.” Gideon gave Will a little shove in Robot’s direction. “I thought you kept Will alive across the galaxy; don’t let all your hard work go to waste. The kid needs some sleep or something. Or you can leave him here with me. I can warm him up as soon as I’m done saving the day.”

 

The heat of a blush helped banish the damp chill. Will glared. “I don’t need anyone to take care of me. And I’m not a kid.”

 

“Yeah.” Gideon shrugged and threw himself back onto his stool, and Will almost missed a gusty, “Thank fuck for that.”

 

“Gid’s right, though,” Will sighed, looking to Robot. “We should get home. I… have a lot of homework.”

 

“Not until you see me actually save the day.” Gideon waved him over. “You might have single-handedly stopped a war and made it possible to continue rescuing our human brethren from their doomed planet, but I managed to copy my dad’s code and make it better. These little nippers are definitely going to find those missing blokes.” He pulled up the colony messaging service on his computer and directed it to contact Colony Command with an audio request. 

 

“Command,” came a smooth male voice over the computer audio a moment later. 

 

“Hey, this is Gideon Adler.” Gideon leaned back as he spoke, fingers laced behind his head, the absolute image of unshakable confidence. “I have three drones with video capability to help with the search, fully charged, and ready to fly.”

 

“Good to hear it, Gideon. I’ll put you through to the intelligence core.”

 

“Thanks, mate.”

 

Gideon spared a smirk for Will before a female voice came on. 

 

“This is Major Parrera. Gideon Adler? I understand that you have some programmable drones to contribute to the search effort?”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“We’re going to send a packet of code over the network. I want you to install it on your machines. It will give control over your drones to Command--a necessity for this cooperative effort. We can’t afford to have drone operators accidentally crashing into each other or covering the same areas.”

 

“Oh, uh, yeah, okay. So you just… want the drones? Not an operator?” 

 

“Not at this time, Gideon, and we appreciate your contribution.” After a second of silence, Major Parrera asked, “Did you receive the packet?”

 

Gideon flipped to his messaging program and nodded to himself. “Yeah, got it. This isn’t permanent, is it? I’ll get control back?”

 

“Assuredly. We’ll issue a deletion command. This is only temporary to assist in the search effort.”

 

“Right.”

 

“Is that Gideon?” interrupted a male voice. “Parrera, switch your video on.”

 

It took a beat for Will to recognize the new person. When he did, a chill of dread raced across his shoulders and sank into the pit of his stomach.

 

“Hastings,” he whispered, flinching as the computer flickered. A video feed appeared, showing a short, black-haired woman and, leaning over her left shoulder, the familiar square, unassuming face of the Resolute’s former Intelligence Officer.

 

“Gideon!” Hastings exclaimed, smiling. “Put on your video, son. I want to see you.”

 

Instead of panicking and cutting the call as Will would have, Gideon leaned forward with a bark of laughter and hit the icon to turn on his camera. Will bolted out of the picture. “Mr. Hastings,” Gideon said, sprawling back again, the image of comfort. “How are you? Where’ve you been? You owe me two years of Skittles.”

 

Hastings chuckled and shook his head. “Look at you. You look just like your dad, rest his soul. Sorry about the latest Skittles shipment, it rammed into a gas giant halfway between Earth and Alpha Centauri. I’ll have to make it up to you. I’ve just been so busy since we arrived. Maybe I’ll bring you boys and your mom some dinner after we find those missing engineers. We’ll catch up--oh, hello there.” Hasting’s eyes moved up and Will groaned inwardly, realizing that Robot had entered the camera’s field and moved closer, looming up behind Gideon. “I see the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. When did you get your new toy?”

 

“Uh.” For once, Gideon seemed speechless. He looked to Will, pressed to the wall to stay out of sight.

 

“Ah,” Hastings breathed. “I see. The Robinson boy is with you. Hello, Will, glad to know you’re settling into your new home. We have a lot to thank you for, you know. It’s amazing what you’ve accomplished... all things considered.”

 

Robot leaned over Gideon and glared into the computer’s camera. Flecks of red crackled within his starry face. 

 

Hastings seemed less than concerned. “We’ll talk later, Gideon,” he said, as comfortable as if they’d bumped into each other on the street. “I have a lot to tell you. Thank you for volunteering your dad’s old drones--we need as many eyes out there as we can get. Give my best to your mom and Leslie.”

 

“Yeah, no problem. Bye, Mr. Hastings.”

 

The call cut out, and Will could breathe again. “You have to delete that code off your drones,” he urged, leaning against Gideon’s table.

 

“What? Why?” Gideon pushed his stool away from Robot, who still loomed over him. “And what just happened there?”

 

“If Hastings is involved, it’s more than just a temporary program. He’s evil . You can’t trust him.”

 

“Woah, hey! Hastings is like an uncle to me. Don’t talk shit about him.”

 

“You don’t understand. The things he did… It was awful.” 

 

“He worked with my dad and made sure thousands of colonists got here. What’s so awful about that?”

 

Will swallowed with difficulty, looking to Robot and remembering how Hastings had tortured him. How he’d plagued Scarecrow for years

 

“He…” Will groped for something he could say. “He tried to abandon some of the colonists. He tried to kill my parents. He tried to kill a dozen maintenance crewmen.”

 

“For the greater good, right?”

 

In disbelief of Gideon’s nonchalance, Will sputtered, “Yeah, but it’s not the greater good if you have to doom innocent people to do it!”

 

Gideon held up a pacifying hand. “Look, whatever he did, he did it for a reason. He’s not evil, Will, he just looks at things differently than you do. Not everyone has a giant fucking robot to fix their problems. Some of us make hard choices.”

 

“Hey, he doesn’t fix my problems! And Hastings didn’t have to make those choices. You don’t even know what he did up there!”

 

“It must not have been that bad--he’s still working in Command, isn’t he? They know what he did.”

 

Will gaped, hurting and shaking and at a loss for what to say. Gideon really couldn’t see what kind of man Hastings was? And Will couldn’t tell him the worst of it, because then he would have to talk about Ben and Scarecrow, and most of that information was confidential and besides, the longer it took for that information to come out, the more deeply buried it became. 

 

“Please,” he finally uttered. “Delete the code. Operate your own drones. Don’t trust him.”

 

“And jeopardize the search?” Gideon’s frown returned. “Now who’s dooming innocent people?”

 

“I…”

 

“Look. People talk about your family, too. I think you’re all fucking lit, but a lot of other people think you came this close to dooming the entire human race.” He held up a thumb and finger and pressed them together. “They’re still waiting for the robot army to show up and wipe us off the face of the planet. The point is, stop chucking rocks from your glass tower, or whatever. Leave Hastings alone. He’s just doing his part.”

 

“But he…” 

 

“Leave it alone.” The hard snap made Will flinch again.

 

Robot turned on Gideon, shoulder spikes flaring. The sight of his aggression spurred Will to movement. He strode to his jacket, scooped it and the piece of Scarecrow into his arms, and hurried to the door. “We should go,” he muttered to the floor. 

 

“Yeah, I got shit to do.”

 

Will erupted into the moist air, discovering that the rain had finally stopped and orange cracks had appeared in the grey cloud cover. He waited for Robot to join him and then started briskly away, head down, hugging his jacket.

 

How could he take Hastings’ side? he wondered, a mix of angry and sad and confused. Hastings was the bad guy.

 

**

 

Will woke sometime in the evening--damp, groggy, hungry, and uncertain about the time--to the beeping of his comm. It took him a moment to realize someone was trying to call him, but when that sank in, he bolted upright and answered, confident he would hear a family member’s voice.

 

“Yes,” he croaked, following ship communication protocols in his dazed state, “This is Will Robinson.”

 

“Uh, yeah, mate, I know who you are,” came Gideon’s low, amused voice. “Did I wake you?”

 

The sound was like a wash of cold water, startling Will to full wakefulness.

 

“No,” he lied. “What--why are you calling? Everything okay?” Maybe Gideon’s drones had found the missing colonists?

 

“Yeah, it’s fine. I just didn’t like how we left off, you know?”

 

“Oh. Um.” Will glanced around, but Robot’s living room was dark--there was nothing for him to latch onto. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the many bad memories from earlier that day. Had he done something wrong? Was he supposed to apologize? “Okay,” he said weakly. 

 

“There’s a bunch of us getting together at the quarry tomorrow. You and Robot want to come?”

 

“What?” Dizzy from the topic change, Will didn’t know how to answer. “Who? Where?”

 

“You know, all us kids. The ones not allowed to leave the colony to search like everyone else? The ones who would just be sitting at home alone, wondering if their parents will come back from hunting outside the perimeter? Yeah. Those. Anyway, there’s an old quarry between two of the residential areas. It’s kind of turning into a park. You want to come hang out with us?”

 

“Oh. Well, I… I don’t know.” After the day’s events and with Will’s dark memories looming over him, he felt exhausted and worn down, like a raw, exposed nerve. Socializing with near-strangers was the last thing he wanted to do.

 

“It’ll be fun,” Gideon wheedled. “I’m going to the market in the morning to see if anything’s open. I’ll pick you up something.”

 

“Um.”

 

“And, well, don’t be mad, okay? I kind of told some people that you’d be there.”

 

What?! You didn’t even ask.”

 

“I know, I know. You kind of came up in conversation, and I may have stretched the truth a bit and said you were my friend, and they were like, prove it, and I was like, well, sure, I’ll invite him and Robot out tomorrow, and you’ll see. So, yeah. Sorry, mate. I should have asked first. And I’ve only known you for two weeks--I’m not sure you even think of me as a friend.”

 

Will’s stomach twisted in empathy. “Of course I do,” he sighed, scrubbing his face. “I just... I don’t know that I’m up to meeting new people.”

 

“They’re not new; they’re from school. And you can just sit there if you want to. You don’t need to say a word. I’ll do all the talking for you and Robot. You can elbow me in code to tell me what you want me to say.”

 

“Gid…”

 

“Please?"

 

Will sighed. "Yeah. Okay. I can't promise that Robot will come, but I'll be there. For a while, anyway."

 

"Yes! This means a lot to me. Thanks, mate."

 

"Yeah."

 

"I'll send you the details. Bye!"

 

"Yeah."

 

Will flopped back, wrestling with irritation. It wasn't that he didn't want to meet people; he just wanted to do it on his own terms, in small, comfortable groups. That Gideon had accepted on his behalf just made it worse--like he had no choice. 

 

Blue-white light streamed in from the back hall moments before Robot emerged. Will's heart lifted, even as his nose wrinkled at some kind of dusty smell. He sneezed. 

 

"What were you doing back there?" he wondered, his voice little more than a croak.

 

The living room lights brightened, allowing Will to see Robot more clearly as he held up a perfectly square chunk of wall.

 

"Ah,” Will said, a half-smile on his face. “Renovating."

 

Robot thudded away and Will checked his messages. He discovered an update from Penny, vanishing his smile. 

 

There was no trace of the missing engineers, not even a wrecked Chariot or a drop of blood. They’d disappeared somewhere on the rough and winding road between the main colony and the new site without leaving anything behind. Judy was heading back to the colony for her shift at the medical center while Penny, Maureen, and John were going to remain at the new site until Sunday evening. Almost everyone in the colony with authorization to leave the safe zone was out there.

 

Except for Robot. Will considered his dearest friend again, wondering how Command could put their trust in Hastings, but not in Robot, who had brought their children home. 

 

He wondered if they should just go--break or sneak through the perimeter and join the search themselves. If anyone could find those lost humans, it was Robot. 

 

But at what cost? When Scarecrow disappeared, Robot had nearly been confined to the detention center as Command panicked. If Robot went AWOL, Will could only imagine what that might trigger. 

 

He would have to be very sure before they made that decision.

 

“Tell me if any of you are in danger,” he typed to Penny. “And we’ll be there.”

 

“Thanks, little brother,” she sent back. And then, after a pause, “And big brother.”

 

Robot returned to the living room, his hands-free and a fine dust layer dulling his usual blue-black gloss. 

 

“You need a shower,” Will observed. “So do I.” He looked down at himself, his clothes still damp, splashes of mud on his trousers, a rank smell rising from his shirt. “Ugh. I should go before I wreck your couch. Even more than I already did.”

 

Robot thudded to the end of the couch, stars shifting as he thought about something. He waved at the dark doorway to his back hall.

 

“Thanks, but all of my stuff is at my house.” Will rose to his feet, stiff and shivering as the blanket slid away. “I’d better go, anyway. You only get two days at home, and I don't want to make it hard for you to do something you want to do. Like, um, taking down a wall or something."

 

As he spoke, he tottered stiffly to the door and pulled his cold, wet jacket onto arms that didn’t want to unfurl from his body heat. His skin crawled, and he shivered again--he wanted nothing more than to peel out of his clothes and into his bed. He would invite Robot to Gideon’s gathering in the morning when he could think straight.

 

“Good night,” he mumbled, leaning back against Robot’s door and trying to trigger it open with an elbow. When it didn’t immediately open, he squinted to find Robot approaching him. The door only opened when Robot had fallen into place beside him.

 

“You really don’t need to come with me,” Will murmured as he stepped out into the dusky light. His stomach gave a little, confused lurch--the usual disconcertion of stepping into the morning when his body said it should be night--and then he was moving again. He zombie shambled over the alien grass to his door and stumbled inside. 

 

He didn’t know if he’d been hoping to see Judy inside but felt a stab of disappointment that the house was empty. When Robot stepped in behind him, that disappointment softened into relief. He wasn’t alone. Not when Robot was around.

 

Will hung his jacket up to dry and limped to the kitchen, hugging himself. He was freezing . Mechanically, he dug out a tray of something and threw it in the microwave, understanding from a distance that he was probably hungry more than anything else.

 

“Don’t tell Judy or Mom about this,” he said to Robot, who stood watch from the kitchen door. “They already think I can’t take care of myself.”

 

Robot’s head tilted, and Will suspected that he would agree with Judy and Maureen.

 

Leaning against the counter, Will drank down two bottles of some kind of sweetened, yellow nutrient liquid, and then devoured his meal, scalding the top of his mouth because he couldn’t stop to blow on the steaming mix of noodles and red... goo? By the time he’d finished, he could barely move, he was so full and tired. He pinballed out of the kitchen, finding his way along the counter with a hip more than his eyes, bounced off of Robot’s molded plates, and continued down the hall. With heavy steps, he made it to the bathroom and shut himself in. 

 

Shower, reminded his brain. You really need a shower. You’ll feel better.

 

Eyes half-lidded, he stripped, climbed in, and turned on the water.

 

The initial cold blast made him yelp and slip. His butt hit the frigid tiles, the back of his head hit the wall, and he spent a dazed moment sputtering and trying to catch his breath as the water slowly warmed to a tolerable temperature. 

 

“Ow,” he muttered, rubbing his head. 

 

Something touched his shoulder.

 

“Gah!” he yelped again. He jumped sideways and would have slipped a second time if a strong metal hand hadn’t caught him under the arm. “R-Robot,” he stammered, shocked by how quietly Robot could move. He met Robot’s swirling gaze and immediately pulled his arm out of that powerful grip. “What are you doing?” 

 

Robot stepped back and straightened. He pointed at Will, still sprawled in the bottom of the stall. 

 

“I’m fine,” Will snapped, embarrassed at slipping all over as if he’d never had a shower before and at being rescued from his own clumsiness. Again. He scrambled to his feet and out of the stall and grabbed a towel off the nearby rack to wrap around his waist. If nothing else, he could maintain some decency. “I’m done.” He hadn’t had a chance to use any kind of soap, but he didn’t feel like washing under Robot’s attention. The world’s most uncomfortable rinse would have to do. “Do you want a turn?”

 

He’d asked it wryly, not expecting an answer, but Robot nodded and stepped past him. Shocked once again, Will watched Robot try to fit under the showerhead. His annoyance quickly vanished, replaced by fond amusement as the water doused Robot’s chest and shoulders and not much else.

 

“Here.” Will squeezed in next to him to retrieve the showerhead, smiling apologetically as his wet chest and stomach rubbed against Robot’s hip. “Let me help.”

 

With some angling, Will was able to get the water up onto Robot’s head, where it sluiced away the dust and grime. The bottom of the stall darkened as the filthy water gathered. He couldn’t remember the last time Robot had bathed--certainly, he’d never used a human shower that he knew of, anyway. The tiny stall on the Jupiter wouldn’t have accommodated him, and the bathroom in his house was pristine. 

 

“How do your people bathe?” he wondered. 

 

Familiar pressure in his mind and then a flash of phantom heat all over his skin was his answer.

 

Will laughed. “You burn everything off? Like a self-cleaning oven?”

 

Robot shrugged and ducked his head, signaling Will to move the showerhead over him. 

 

“We must seem so decadent to you… Our perfectly calibrated water to gently wash our fragile organic bodies. Our soaps to cut through the oils and kill the unwanted microbes.” As Robot turned slowly, Will watched rivulets of water running down his back and into the crevices between his plates, curious about what it must feel like. He snagged another towel to buff out a smear of grime on Robot’s leg that resisted the spray, crouched down when he found another near his knee. “Maybe I should ask Don for something to give you a good wash. I don’t know why I’ve never thought of this before. I could even wax you.”

 

Robot’s expression didn’t change, but he moved his leg away from Will and his head jerked sharply as though in annoyance. 

 

“I don’t mean that you’re like a Chariot!” Will protested, fighting another laugh as he shuffled closer to scrub the remaining bits of yellow paint off his ankle from two weeks earlier. “I just thought it might be nice to try. Maybe you’ll like it.”

 

“Uh, Will?”

 

Will startled upright and whirled to see Judy in the open bathroom door, her face lined with weariness and slack with shock. He flushed, realizing what she’d just walked in on--Will in nothing but a towel, on his knees and backing Robot into a corner of their shower.

 

“Judy!” he exclaimed. “Robot was, uh, totally gross. From how muddy it was today. And, uh, so was I.” He shut off the water. “You probably want a shower? We’ll get out of your way. How are you? Penny told me there’s been no sign of Dad’s engineers?”

 

She continued to stare for a long moment. Under her wide-eyed and unreadable expression, Will awkwardly found another towel to wrap around his already wet one and found a fourth to rub Robot’s arm in a half-hearted attempt to dry him off. 

 

“Uh, yes,” she finally said, shaking her head as though shooing away an annoying insect. “That’s right. Nothing yet. Um, doesn’t Robot have a shower?” 

 

“Yes. But he’s here.” Will moved on to the other arm, finding it challenging to keep rubbing. He’d begun to shiver in the chill air without the shower running. 

 

Robot gave him a gentle push in the center of his chest. 

 

Confused, Will backed away a step and then flinched as heat and a puff of steam washed over him. Robot made a ticking noise, metal expanding or contracting, and he was suddenly dry and back to his usual glossy finish. 

 

“There we go.” Will smiled at Judy. “We’ll be on our way…” 

 

“Will…” Judy caught his arm as he tried to get past her. “How about you let Robot go back to his place tonight? You look like you need a good night’s sleep, in your own bed.”

 

Will shrugged her away. “I don’t let Robot do anything--you know that. And look who’s talking. When was the last time you slept through a night? I barely see you anymore.”

 

Her brows drew together. “I’m working night shifts.”

 

And visiting a certain mechanic most days…?”

 

Eyes rolling, Judy gave him a shove toward his bedroom. “Hardly. Stop listening to Penny’s rumors. And don’t go off-topic. Go to bed. Robot,” she pointed at Robot sternly, “let Will get some sleep, okay? He doesn’t run on lightning.”

 

Robot bowed his head, shoulders slumping. 

 

“Hey, it’s not his fault that he likes hanging out with me. I’m awesome.”

 

“Uh-huh.” Judy backed away to let Robot pass and followed him to the door. Will trailed behind her, clutching his towel and shivering. “Good night, Robot. I think you’ll be back to the usual schedule tomorrow evening, so enjoy the rest of your weekend.”

 

“Bye, Robot,” Will said shakily, sad to see Robot’s broad figure disappear out the door. “I’ll come over in the morning.”

 

When it was just the two of them, Judy wrapped Will in an unexpected hug. Before he could struggle out of her arms in pure embarrassment at being embraced while naked from the waist up, she released him. 

 

“You’d tell me if something… weird… was going on, right?” she asked, her voice low and strained as though they weren’t the only two people in the house. 

 

Many weird things had happened to Will in the past two years; he didn’t know where to start. So he mentioned the most recent one. “Did you know Hastings is working at Command? That’s weird, right? Why would they let him?”

 

Judy leaned away, blinking rapidly, apparently as taken aback as he had been. “Ye-es,” she said slowly. “Yes, I think it is, too. And I don’t know. Maybe he’s on parole? Anyway, tell me if anything happens, okay? To you. Or to… to Robot. You know, if you feel like you can’t talk to Mom or Dad, you have me, right? I love you and will always listen to you.” She smiled, but it was a nervous expression, not quite relaxing the lines around her eyes.

 

“Yeah, sure. You too, I guess.” Will edged away, suddenly very much wanting to escape her unusual intensity and hide in his room’s safety. “‘Night.”

 

“Good night, Will. Sleep well.”

 

Chapter Text

Perfectly Natural 13

 

Will’s feet dragged as he followed the well-worn path that led from one of the residential streets into an empty field of black grasses, low ferns, a few spindly fungi, and a million little flashes of light. Chittering sounds, the crackle of vegetation, the gentle wind--all the noises, strange for someone still accustomed to ship life--made him cringe and watch the ground with wary eyes, half-expecting something to crawl out and attack. 

 

If Robot hadn’t been thumping close behind him, he might not have made it to the white glow emanating from the quarry. 

 

He heard music and voices before he reached the edge: shouts, laughter, a low din of talking whose words he couldn’t make out over the energetic electronic music. When he finally climbed to the edge and peered into the rocky bowl of the quarry, he was surprised to see a few dozen teens and kids. They’d set up bright, slender pylons in a rectangle on the quarry’s flat bottom, forming the boundaries of a soccer pitch. Two teams of older teens played against each other. Several other kids looked on from seats on the surrounding rocks and walls, some of them shouting encouragement, others deep in conversation and apparently ignoring the game. Vibrant graffiti covered the walls, complex layers of murals, phrases, and symbols, some of it seeming to move as the shadows of the soccer players danced over them.

 

It all looked so normal, so relaxed. You’d never know they were on an alien planet and the colony was in the midst of a crisis, except that the sky was night black and full of green auroras despite the late morning hour.

 

Will almost backed away, torn by conflict. Could he talk with any of those other kids? Did he have anything to say? His mind had been occupied by bad memories, thoughts of Hastings, thoughts of Robot, and homework. If anyone asked him about something familiar, he’d be lost entirely.

 

Then he heard an unusually loud shout and spotted Gideon just as he slid under one of the other soccer players to get the ball away from her, making her trip. Someone else whooped and booted the ball into one of the goals. Gideon’s team cheered and he got to his feet, brushing himself off and shaking out an arm that was visibly red from scraping against the ground.

 

“We could just go cheer him on for a few minutes, right?” Will asked Robot.

 

“No,” Robot said flatly. 

 

Will chuckled. “All right. I’ll cheer him on. You can cheer for the other team.” He edged closer and found the path down--a narrow climb along an old machine trail, broken up by rocks and boulders and missing chunks. Not dangerous, probably, and the distance to the ground wasn’t so great that a fall would cause serious injury. Will started down, trailing a hand on a wall worn smooth by years of other fingertips.

 

He’d expected Robot to follow, but Robot must have decided to go the more direct route. Halfway to the bottom, Will was startled when a black shape plummeted past him. Robot, in his more agile four-armed mode, landed on the quarry floor with a screech of metal on stone and hiss of hydraulics. As he straightened from a crouch, the soccer teams and their audience shrieked and fled, stumbling over themselves to dive behind the boulders, some of them scrambling up the opposite quarry wall to get away.

 

Only Gideon remained on the pitch, laughing, fist on his hip. “Hey, Robot,” he called with a jaunty wave. “Thanks for dropping in, mate.”

 

Will reached the bottom and joined Robot, fighting a smile. He wasn’t going to laugh at the others, but Robot’s mischievous streak never ceased to surprise him.

 

“Will, you made it!” Gideon called when he noticed him. He approached, arms outstretched.

 

Robot hissed and raised his claws, spikes flaring, halting Gideon’s advance.

 

“Er, you came to hang out, right?” Gideon asked, looking between Robot and Will.

 

“Yeah, for a bit.” Will rolled his eyes at Robot’s reaction and stepped past him. “This looks great. I guess this is the place everyone goes to have fun?”

 

Once Will was within reach, Gideon snagged him around the shoulders. He turned him to admire the walls of the quarry and the eyes watching them warily. “Home away from home. Come on. You want a drink?”

 

“Sure.” 

 

Gideon directed him to a now free tumble of boulders where he could sit on a rock and bring up his legs. Gideon dug into a bag and pulled out two bottles of Centaurian cola. “I didn’t know if Robot, well…” He offered one to Will and then held the other up to Robot where he loomed and glowed over them both. 

 

Robot pinched it between two claws and then passed it to Will. 

 

“Thanks,” Will murmured, setting it down beside him. “He doesn’t eat or drink the same way we do, but it’s cool of you to think of him.”

 

“Yeah, no problem.” Gideon sprawled across two rocks, leaning on an elbow, and downed half of a bottle. He took a deep breath after and called to the others, “Hey, you guys gonna come back? We still got a game to finish.”

 

Will watched from the corner of his eye as pairs and trios of kids cautiously climbed down and returned, keeping their distance. He maintained an appearance of relaxation, trying to convince them through body language alone that all was well. They had nothing to fear from Robot.

 

Two of the soccer players began kicking the ball back and forth. A small group clambered onto a nearby rock and continued their conversation. And, finally, two young kids crept near. Will recognized them from the Resolute and his physical class--he smiled and lifted his drink in greeting.

 

“Hey,” he said when they were close enough that he could see their wide eyes.

 

“Wow,” said one of them, a stocky boy. “It’s Robot.”

 

“Hi, Robot,” said the other, her neck craning so she could peer up at his glowing face. “You look different.”

 

“Is he angry?” asked the first. “He only looks like that when he’s angry.”

 

Will shook his head, though he could understand their confusion--on the Jupiter and Fortuna, Robot had reserved that configuration for battle, not… parties. “No, this is actually what he looks like normally. He uses the other form when he needs to be in small spaces.” Or to make small-minded humans feel better, he added to himself darkly. “He’s not angry,” he continued, in case that wasn’t clear. 

 

“Oh,” they breathed. 

 

The girl stepped closer and raised a hand. “I always wanted to do this… Would he give me a high five?”

 

That startled a laugh out of Will. “Ask him yourself.”

 

“Can I have a high five?” she asked Robot.

 

With quiet gravitas, Robot bent and touched one of his three-clawed inferior hands to hers.

 

She squealed and danced backward and Will suffered a rush of panic that she’d somehow been hurt. But the squeal resolved into the kind of happy shrieking Penny used to make when her favourite shows came on. Happy noises, he reassured himself, trying to calm his rapid heartbeat. 

 

The girl jumped in place a few times and shoved her friend. “He gave me a high five!”

 

“So cool,” breathed the boy. “Can I have one, too? No! A fist bump.”

 

As the two kids had their dreams made true by Robot’s gentle interactions, others began to emerge from the shadows. Mostly Resolute kids, they approached and asked for more high fives, fist bumps, and in one case a secret handshake that Robot executed to perfection. Some of them told Robot about the amazing things he had done to help them--whether it was protecting them from an alien or human monster, or from certain death by a hull breach, or by maintaining the integrity of the Resolute when the adults were still trying to save it. 

 

Eventually, the rocks around them held a flock of kids once again chatting comfortably amongst themselves, and Will relaxed. This wasn’t bad at all. He’d been so worried, but the colony children thought of Robot in a much different light than their adult counterparts.

 

“How is Sam not here?!” hissed someone behind him, the vaguely familiar name catching his attention. “She’d kill to get this close to Robot.”

 

“She’s not answering her comm, but, girl, I am not going to be the one to tell her she missed this.”

 

“I can’t believe how awesome he is. Those lights! Those arms!”

 

“Will’s pretty cute, too…”

 

“Eh, if you like that kind of thing.”

 

Will hastily turned his attention elsewhere, his ears burning. He didn’t know what was worse: being considered cute or considered a ‘kind of thing’. 

 

The soccer players started up again, calling to the others to get onto the pitch.

 

Gideon slid off his rock. “You cool if I go?” he asked, meeting Will’s gaze with a little smile. “I know I told you I’d do all the talking for you, but you two seem to be handling yourselves.”

 

“Are we handling ourselves?” Will asked, leaning back to look up at Robot. 

 

Robot’s expression pulsed in a contented ring.

 

“Yeah, we’re fine. I think Robot’s enjoying himself.”

 

“Lit. Then I’ll get back out there.” Gideon stripped off his sleeveless shirt in a smooth movement. “You want to play?” he asked, tossing the garment on his bag.

 

“Um. No. Not this time.” Will averted his gaze from the twin flashes of Gideon’s piercings, uncomfortably aware of the interest he felt at the sight of metal and skin meeting in such a way. It reminded him of the restricted video he’d watched with Robot--the interface between man and fake robot. “I never really played soccer back on Earth,” he continued tightly, steadfastly watching a girl showing off how many times she could bump the soccer ball from knee to knee. "Baseball was my sport. "

 

“I’ll teach you sometime.” 

 

"Okay."

 

Gideon bounced on his toes for a moment, almost like he wanted to say something else, and then he jogged away to join the others. 

 

Will settled in, more than a little surprised by how good it felt to just hang out with a bunch of people his own age, to watch some other kids play a random game with music in the background, Robot an accepted--no, admired --presence at his side. 

 

He checked his comm regularly, expecting to hear from his family at any moment, but other than Penny's update of "No change" and Maureen's reminder to eat breakfast and have a good day, they'd been silent. The lack of information made him antsy from inactivity, making him watch Gideon with more appreciation than he otherwise would have--how much worse would the waiting be if he and Robot were home alone? Despite their argument about Hastings the day before, despite the way Gideon had convinced him to come out, Will was grateful for the distraction. 

 

The game ended when one team reached some number of points. Will was hazy on the details--and so were the players. A shoving match broke out when two players and two scorekeepers couldn't decide if the game had actually ended. An athletic girl decided for them by booting the ball into the audience, where a few younger kids began passing it back and forth.

 

Gideon drifted back to Will, his pale torso glistening with sweat and streaked with mud, his black hair slicked back and ears a little more distinct than usual. He leaned next to Will and chugged from a bottle of water between gulps for air. When he finished, he grinned at Will and asked, “So? Do I kick ass or what?”

 

Will forced his gaze away from those piercings, annoyed at himself. Gideon was just minding his own business and Will almost couldn’t stop himself from staring at him and thinking about an explicit video and getting uncomfortably warm. “You’d kick ass if you could kick the ball,” he teased, focusing his attention on the empty bottle between his own palms.

 

“Oh, ouch.” Gideon pressed a hand to his chest. “I’ll have you know that I am a team player and tripping the other team is just as important as kicking the ball.”

 

Will snorted and shook his head, not bothering to hide a smile.

 

The ting! of something hard striking metal caught his attention. He twisted to look up at Robot and found him at ease, blue-white stars pulsing peacefully as he watched a young girl and the video playing on her comm. Another sharp ting! made Will blink and hunt for the source, but in the semi-darkness he couldn’t pick anything out.

 

Then one of Robot’s superior arms swung out and he caught something in his palm, only a meter away from Will’s head. Without looking at it, Robot closed his three fingers. There was a crunch and dust puffed out of his hand.

 

“What the hell?” Will muttered, his gaze rising to the quarry wall. “Was that a rock ?” Who would throw rocks at Robot ?!

 

At the top of the quarry, barely visible against the black and green sky, Will could scarcely make out a few figures. One of them lifted an arm and a rock struck a boulder nearby. 

 

Will slid to his feet and backed away to get a better look. “Knock it off!” he shouted.

 

“See what I mean?” said a vaguely familiar voice behind him. 

 

Will whirled around and glared when he found Rich and Rich’s smirk. He hadn't seen him there earlier--he must have just arrived, or been lurking somewhere.

 

The older teen folded his arms, an expression of superiority on his face. “The robot didn’t even move until its precious Will Robinson was in danger. You're not some kind of hero, Robinson; you’re a pathetic little princess.”

 

What?! ” Will gasped, flushing hotly with anger and surprise. Where was this even coming from? “I am not .” When he heard another ting! , his anger boiled into rage. “Tell them to stop. Now .”

 

“Or what?” Rich shrugged smugly. “Anyway, they’re not aiming at your robot. They just suck at hitting you .”

 

Will glared back up at the shadowy figures and noticed them moving again. Concerned that he was about to get nailed by a rock, he stepped back, hunting against the dark sky for a flash of something being thrown. His heel bumped one of the waist-high light pylons and he grabbed it up to defend himself, hands curling around the cool, slender metal rod with old familiarity. His posture adjusted into a batter's ready stance, though it had been years since he’d played.

 

If only he could see through the deep shadows caused by the pylons' bright lights. One of those figures moved sharply and Will knew something was headed straight for him--

 

Pressure built in the back of his mind and he reflexively welcomed it. Information washed across his awareness: The size and consistency of the projectile, the speed, the flight path. The muscles in Will’s back, shoulders, and arms responded--he swung and smashed the fist-sized rock out of the air, sending it crashing into the quarry wall. The pylon's bulb exploded from the impact, scattering glass on Will's boots and the dry ground at his feet. 

 

“Woah, Will!” Gideon cheered. “Nice one!” 

 

Will spun the broken pylon to examine the new dent in the base, and then turned to eye Rich’s temptingly round head. 

 

Rich seemed less than impressed. “Whatever, princess. Good luck with the next one.”

 

Will had a second to register the new information from Robot--the next projectile took two people to lift and hurl, it was the size of a human head, and it was on a path directly for him--before the chunk of rock exploded in the air above them. 

 

The kids around them screamed in surprise and fear as bits of hot rock rained down and the sharp stink of smoke filled the air. Robot lowered his hand and finally shifted his position, thudding around to directly regard the figures on the quarry wall, his face brightening with red striations, an aggressive ellipse spinning within his glowing nebula.

 

Will’s jaw ached as the frustration he’d been forcing down with every breath since they'd landed on that damned planet began to boil up and clog the back of his throat. After everything he and Robot had done and gone through to protect the other colonists, these idiots were throwing rocks at them? 

 

Eighty-seven percent chance of mortal injury, he thought, judging the possibility of one of their attacks hitting home on Will’s fragile organic body. Threat level moderate. Eliminate.

 

“Eliminate,” Will murmured. And then, shocked by the sound of his own voice, his anger fled. “No!” he shouted, dropping the pylon and spinning toward Robot. “No, don’t kill them!”

 

Robot’s raised superior hand shot a sustained blast, redirecting at the last moment from the dark figures to the quarry wall just below them. The wall crumbled and shrieks cut through the din as the figures and what must have been a ton of dirt and debris crashed and tumbled down to the quarry floor.

 

“Oh, no,” Will gasped. He ran into the dust cloud, immediately coughing as he breathed in a lungful of dirt and smoke. With an elbow crooked over his face, he hunted blindly amongst the fallen rocks for his assailants. Where are they?! he begged the ever-present intelligence in his mind.

 

Infrared overlaid his vision. He saw three figures radiating heat nearby, shifting to sit up, shaking their heads. Alive. 

 

But Robot thudded behind him, still angry, still considering the three colonists a threat. If Will wanted to keep them alive, he’d have to convince Robot that they were no longer dangerous.

 

He arrived at the three and found teens who must have been Rich’s age and not from the Resolute, groaning and coughing and struggling to sit. 

 

"Hey," Will said, crouching beside the nearest, a boy whose cheek was already bleeding and puffing up with a bruise under a layer of dust. “You okay?”

 

“Oh God, oh shit,” the boy uttered roughly, scrambling backwards on his hands and knees. He bumped into the other two, making them curse until they looked up and froze in a clump of terrified faces.

 

The ground trembled under Will’s feet as Robot arrived behind him, looming silent and threatening over them all, staining the dusty air crimson.

 

Another rush of anger almost made Will grab the nearest boy and shake him, demand what the hell they’d been thinking, but he pushed it away. 

 

“Just stay behind me,” Will murmured. He rose to his feet to address Robot’s huge, shadowy form. “They're not a threat anymore, Robot. Please let them go.”

 

Robot released a low growl of disapproval.

 

The group whimpered. 

 

“Apologize,” Will commanded over his shoulder. “Tell him you’ll never do something that stupid again.”

 

“Shit, yeah, s-sorry,” stammered the first boy. “Sorry. I’ll never do it again.” The others echoed him. 

 

“He’s bluffing,” Rich declared, materializing from the dust as he strode closer, that smug expression never leaving his square face. “The robot can’t hurt humans.”

 

He can , Will knew. He has. And right now… he wants to.

 

“What are you thinking?” Will demanded. “Why are you provoking him? Do you know what will happen if someone gets hurt and he’s involved? There’ll be a war!”

 

“Because I can’t stand you .” Rich’s smirk fell away, replaced by an ugly sneer. “Will Robinson, everyone’s favourite. Why? Because this fucking robot’ll blast anyone who looks at you the wrong way. I wanted to show everyone exactly what’s going on here. The robot’s fine--I got no beef with it--but you ! Lording it over everyone, but all this time you’re just its fucking weakness. Anyone makes a move against you and the robot’ll snap and we’ll all be fucked.”

 

Will blinked rapidly at the unexpected tirade, his chest immediately aching as the words sliced with deep and agonizing accuracy. 

 

He’s right.

 

Robot swiveled slowly toward Rich, as though realizing that his words were hurting Will as badly as any thrown stone. Will wanted to call out to him to stop, but his voice was gone, stolen into the black hole opening in his gut. He’s right. I’m Robot’s weakness.

 

Then Rich stumbled as someone jumped on his back. Lanky arms wrapped around his head and shoulders, legs clamped around his waist, and a madly cackling Gideon reached around to rub something in his eyes.

 

Rich screamed and collapsed to his knees, hands scrabbling to pry Gideon away from his face. 

 

Gideon leapt nimbly off, still laughing as he bounced back and scrubbed his palms on his thighs. “How do you like that, asshole?” he called. 

 

“My fucking eyes !” Rich howled. His hands dropped--one eye was squeezed closed, the other blinked and watered. Blood speckled his cheek. “Is this glass ?”

 

“Just a little bit. Better get that looked at, mate. Lots of weird infections on this planet.”

 

“You--you dirty, fucking cheat!” Rich struggled to his feet. “I don’t need two eyes to tear you apart, Adler.”

 

As more and more of the dust and smoke cleared, the other soccer players’ figures became visible, standing in a semicircle around Gideon, their grim expressions solemn on Rich.

 

“Maybe another time.” Gideon backed away and jabbed a thumb at the quarry trail. “Get the fuck out of here.” 

 

Rich glared, his one bloodshot eye almost bugging out of his swelling face. Then, cursing under his breath, he stalked away. “This isn’t over,” he spat at Will.

 

Gideon kicked his butt as he walked by, making him stumble and glare. “I hope not,” he chortled. “I want to kick your ass again.”

 

When Rich had passed the semicircle and the three others had melted into the shadows, Gideon laughed and pranced to Will’s side. “Now is that exacerbated, or what? Little shit’ll think twice before messing with you again.”

 

Robot, still glowing red, hissed threateningly.

 

Gideon jumped back, hands raised. “Woah, we’re cool, right, Robot? I didn’t mean to steal your thunder or anything, but your boy had a point. If the shithead tattles on me, I might get grounded. If you hurt him, who knows? You already got a rep problem.”

 

“Yeah,” Will wheezed. “Thanks, Gid.” He sagged, reaching blindly for Robot’s leg for support. The molded metal and grooves under his palm helped ground him and a powerful arm crooked around his back, keeping him on his feet. “I thought… that could have ended badly. So badly. Thank you.”

 

“No problem, mate. If it wasn’t me, it would’ve been someone else. Everyone here thinks Robot’s the shit. No one wants him to get in trouble because of an insect-like that.”

 

Because of me. Will rubbed his face, trying to urge sensation back into skin that had gone numb from shock. Adrenaline continued surging in his veins, making his heart jump around erratically. He couldn’t shake just how close they'd come to disaster. 

 

"Come on, don't worry about it. Take a load off." Gideon gestured at Will's vacated boulder. Around them, once again, the kids were returning to their seats, or they hadn’t moved at all. They murmured amongst themselves, quiet and watchful, and the thumping electronic music continued, a bizarre juxtaposition with the violent, almost deadly, events.

 

"No, I… I think we should go." He could feel Robot's residual alertness mingling with his own nervousness. It wouldn't take much to set either of them off. "Thanks for inviting us and, well, everything."

 

"Yeah, of course."

 

Will hunched his shoulders, hands balled in his jacket pockets, and crossed the soccer pitch to the trail out of the quarry. Many of the kids shouted their goodbyes to Robot, who thudded at Will's side. 

 

When they reached the top of the quarry wall, Will paused to stare broodingly at the green aurora, wondering how such a beautiful planet could feel so dangerous. It wasn't a clear danger like what they had encountered on other planets, where the environment or the local life forms had tried to kill them. This was an insidious danger that threatened Will's heart and mind and belief in himself and other people. 

 

And there wasn't much that he could do to protect himself from it. 

 

He brought up his comm and sent a text to Penny, hoping for some good news to distract him from his gloomy mindset. When there was no immediate answer, he sighed and continued trudging on the path back home.

 

“I think you made some friends,” he commented to Robot after they’d stepped out of the darkness of the empty field and returned to the well-lit colony streets. The noticeable lack of vehicular and foot traffic continued to set him on edge, all too aware of the search that he and Robot had been left out of. “Too bad Sajan wasn’t there, he’s dying to meet you.”

 

After a few steps, he realized that they might have missed a chance to make some real connections for Robot. “Was there anyone you’d like to hang out with again?” he asked.

 

Robot didn’t say anything, but Will’s memory of the girl showing him a video rose up, and that might have been his answer. 

 

“What was she showing you?” Will asked. 

 

Robot swiveled slightly and pointed at himself with one inferior hand and Will with the other.

 

Will laughed, startled out of his funk. “She has videos of us? From when?” He answered himself before Robot got the chance. “She was on the Fortuna, right? Did she get some good shots of us in action?” At Robot’s nod, Will grinned. “I should get copies from her. I bet we looked awesome.” His comm chirped with an incoming text. Not expecting much, he brought up the new message from Penny and froze on the sidewalk. 

 

“Oh no,” he choked, stomach and chest squeezing in worry. 

 

“We found something,” Penny had sent. “Trouble.”

 

And then, “It’s Scarecrow.”

 

Robot loomed over him

 

Will looked up and met his swirling white gaze. “They found Scarecrow,” he whispered. Normally he would have been glad to hear that someone had found the damaged robot, but, with the current situation and with Penny’s note that this meant trouble, he felt nothing but dismay.

 

Robot flinched--a kind of all-over recoiling that indicated he had been startled and was preparing for flight or fight.

 

“You found him?!” Will texted back. “Is he OK? Where is he? He’s not involved in the missing engineers, is he?”

 

When an answer didn’t immediately arrive, he muttered one of Gideon’s favourite curses. “Shit.” He met Robot’s concerned swirl of stars and knew that they couldn’t just wait around for news. If Scarecrow was in danger--or others were in danger from him--Will and Robot were the only ones who could intervene. 

 

He pulled up Penny’s contact information and opened her locator. A map of the area around the colony popped up and he discovered that she wasn’t far from where he’d gone sight-seeing with his father. The search must have fanned out very far if they were covering ground on the other side of the colony from the new site.

 

How could they get there? Will couldn’t exactly walk that far in any good time. Robot could probably cover the distance in a run, but if Will wasn’t there who would speak in support of the robots? 

 

“I need a vehicle,” he thought out loud. “I’m not authorized to sign out a Chariot, if there’s even any left, so it’ll be one of the Alpacas. They’re too small for you, but I think you can run while I drive?”

 

Robot nodded.

 

Will clenched his fists and turned toward the nearest depot. They were doing this. 

 

His parents would just have to forgive him for disobeying colony Command. 

 

Only minutes later, Will kicked the depot terminal--an antiquated computer set into the depot’s resin and regolith external wall--and spat out another string of words that would have made Gideon proud. The automated sign out system had been locked down. Three of the Alpacas--the doorless, two-person, solar-powered vehicles--sat in the lot and he couldn’t access them. 

 

His eyes burned in helpless frustration. Why could nothing go right for him?! 

 

He turned to Robot, ready to tell him to go find Scarecrow on his own because this old computer had thwarted him, when he realized--He knew someone who could make old computers do what he wanted them to, and who wasn’t above going against colony directives.

 

Shaking, Will navigated to Gideon’s contact on his comm and sent a call.

 

“Hey,” Gideon greeted warmly after a few rings. “What’s up? Miss me already?”

 

“Gid, I need your help,” Will said tightly. 

 

“Oh.” Gideon’s voice quickly switched from its usual relaxed drawl to a clipped, serious tone. “What do you need?”

 

“I’m at the depot. I need an Alpaca to get out of the colony, but they’re all locked down. I can’t sign one out.”

 

“They’re saving them all for the search teams, mate. Why do you need to leave?”

 

He almost said Scarecrow’s name, but that was too close to the awful truths that he had sworn not to talk about. “Please,” Will choked instead. “Can you help me?”

 

There was a moment of quiet where all Will could hear was Gideon’s breathing. Then a quiet, “Yeah, sure.”

 

“Hurry?”

 

“I’ll be right there.”

 

Will paced back and forth across the lot and tried to reach Penny again, with no success. Maureen responded to his texts and unanswered calls with a brief, “I’ll call you later”, and John didn’t even do that much. Were they okay? Had something happened? Had Scarecrow been scared or threatened and lashed out at the searchers? If there had been a fight, what would happen to Robot and the other pilots? What would happen to their alliance?

 

Halfway across the lot, his attention fixed on his comm, he ran straight into a hard, warm metal wall. “S-sorry,” he stuttered, backpedalling and wondering how he could have missed his eight foot tall companion sneaking up behind him. 

 

He didn’t get far. 

 

Four long arms closed around him, holding him loosely against the articulated plates and ridges of Robot’s abdomen. Will thought about pulling away, but felt frozen to the spot, his stare locked on the glowing gaps in Robot’s armour. He leaned forward and rested his cheek against Robot’s bulk with a long sigh. An idle hand lifted to trace one of those dim red seams, wondering at the life that could pulse so strongly within an inorganic being. 

 

Some days I feel so helpless. Some days I think I am your weakness. But I won’t stop fighting for you.  

 

Claws found his hair, lightly scratched down his scalp to his neck. He shivered.

 

Rapid footsteps brought his head up. An uncomfortable combination of annoyance and relief made him blink and shake his head as he moved away from Robot.

 

Out in the darkness, he spotted Gideon’s dark hair and tight sleeveless shirt and pale arms approaching at a brisk jog. 

 

“Hey,” he said when he reached the lot, barely out of breath. “What’s going on?”

 

Will hugged himself and paced to the terminal, trying not to shout. “I need an Alpaca.”

 

“Sure, no problem.” Gideon stepped up beside himl, brought down a menu from the top corner of the terminal screen, and started typing in administrator credentials. “You going to tell me where you’re going?”

 

“I think my family’s in trouble.”

 

Gideon looked back at him, brows pulling together. “No one else has heard anything.”

 

“They’re not answering me. And the last message I got, well… I think they’re in trouble.”

 

“There’s an army out there, Will. I’m sure they’re fine.” 

 

That’s what I’m worried about. If the Robinson family encountered Scarecrow, Will was certain that all would be well. But, if it was a hundred anxious and armed colonists…

 

Gideon finished typing and the screen flashed its acceptance of his authorization. He scrolled through a few more menus and then one of the three vehicles lit up, the headlights cutting through the darkness and the console beeping to life, ready to drive. 

 

Will’s heart leapt. “Thank you,” he breathed. “Gid, I can’t tell you how much I owe you.”

 

A bare arm went around his waist, pulling him in. Gideon’s face pressed against the top of his head. His breath ruffled Will’s hair when he asked in a low voice, “When’s your birthday again?”

 

The unexpected question made Will blink. “Um. A few weeks?” He couldn’t even remember the day’s date in his fog of worry.

 

“It’s an early birthday present, then. Unless you want to pay me back someday.”

 

“I don’t know if I can,” Will replied honestly. Other than the one argument, Gideon had been unfailingly kind and supportive. How could he possibly repay that generosity? The one thing he knew Gideon wanted--information about his father--he couldn’t give to him.

 

“I’m sure we can think of something," Gideon murmured, squeezing him a little tighter until they were flush together.

 

Will pulled away, uncomfortably aware of the firm hand on his waist and the smell of sweat, dust, and cologne and the warmth of Gideon's chest and arm soaking through his jacket. “I gotta go,” he said, at a loss for words. “Thanks.”

 

“No problem.” Gideon rocked back on his heels, hands in his pockets. He offered a crooked little smile, his stare dark and heavy. “Be careful.”

 

Will slid into the Alpaca’s driver’s seat. He scanned the console, found something that looked like navigation, and muddled his way through setting his destination to Penny’s coordinates. Then, breathing deeply, he set his hands on the wheel and shifted the gear into drive. He depressed the accelerator with a shaky foot and the Alpaca made a grinding noise without moving.

 

“Here, mate. The brake’s on.” Gideon stretched across Will’s lap to shove a blunt handle down beside his hip. He remained there a moment, palm resting on Will’s thigh, and smirked. “You’ve driven one of these before, yeah?”

 

“No.” Will accelerated again, gratified when the vehicle jerked forward.

 

Gideon hurriedly jumped back, laughing. “If you crash, I had nothing to do with it.”

 

“I won’t crash. Probably.” Driving one of those little Alpacas couldn’t be any harder than navigating the Chariot, and he’d almost driven it without any incidents.

 

Without wasting any more time, Will depressed the accelerator as far as it would go and lurched out of the depot lot. Next to the Alpaca, Robot surged into a smooth run, easily keeping pace with him.

 

Only when they reached the perimeter did Will stop and realize he’d made another error--the perimeter pylons glowed orange, indicating that an alarm would sound if he tried to cross. 

 

So what? he asked himself, glaring at the pylons. He was already breaking the rules--what was one more? His family--and Scarecrow--needed him.

 

With a firm scowl, he accelerated and blew through the perimeter, ignoring the warning on the Alpaca’s console and the loud, automated voice blaring an alarm from his comm. That same alarm was no doubt shouting from the computers of colony security, but he didn’t care. He slapped his comm to cancel the warning and within moments he had left the orange lights behind as they slipped into the alien forest of glowing ferns, flashing wildlife, and towering black fungal spires.

 

**

 

The Alpaca’s navigation system directed him to follow the road he had travelled with John only weeks earlier. His hands strangled the Alpaca’s wheel, his eyes raked the darkness for any signs of danger. The ferns and flickering insects were just a blur as he pushed the Alpaca to its top speed.

 

He remembered the journey being much longer--but that had been when he’d crept along that road in the Chariot, nervousness keeping him to a fraction of the allowable speed. There, with fear snapping at his heels, he made it to the narrow off-shoot in a fraction of the time. He turned and barrelled along the track through the crowding ferns, making the Alpaca jerk and shudder as it took bumps and potholes far too quickly. Once, it started to tip and Will’s heart jumped into his throat, but it righted itself with a squeal of metal on metal, and he realized Robot had grabbed the chassis and shoved the Alpaca back onto its treads. 

 

The path dwindled to nothing and Will let the Alpaca ease to a stop. It made an unhappy, high-pitched whining noise until Will shut it off, and he spared it an apologetic glance as he slid out of his seat. 

 

The Alpaca’s light cut out and darkness flooded in to take its place. Will gave himself a moment to let his eyes adjust before checking his location on his comm and finding that Penny was nearby. He listened hard, but could only hear the usual rustle and chitter of wildlife and the wind whispering through the spires above him.

 

“You’d tell me if there was something dangerous nearby?” he asked Robot, who thankfully continued to glow within arm’s reach.

 

Robot’s starry face turned toward him and Will got a distinct impression that if he were human, he would have lifted an unimpressed eyebrow.

 

Will smiled tremulously. He’d asked the question half in jest, but mostly for the reassurance of Robot’s presence. “That’s what I thought.” He took a deep breath and started toward Penny’s location. “Okay. Let’s go find them.”

 

Robot paced beside him, helping Will force his way through the ferns, past clumps of much smaller spires, over mushy, fallen… things, over ridges of rock, into narrow, muddy gulleys. Creatures scurried away from them, flashing their alarm in the shadows. 

 

“Do you hear anything?” Will wondered, worried when they hadn’t heard or seen anything after several minutes.

 

Information pushed into his mind: Suddenly, he could hear everything . The melange of chitters resolved into the distinct scraping of insect legs against insect bodies, insect mandibles closing on insect prey, insect wings cutting the air. The wind became a chorus of tones blending together into an eerie song. His own heartbeat and ragged breath and the gurgle of his gastric organs became loud and of great concern. Past those immediate noises, he heard human voices. He couldn’t make out any words, but the tone was not fear or anger, letting Will relax slightly.

 

“Thanks,” he said, grateful for how Robot could so easily share his senses. 

 

They closed the distance between themselves and the voices, Will eager to see his family and learn what had happened to Scarecrow. When he could pick out those ubiquitous white pylon lights through the ferns and spires, his step quickened. He desperately wanted to find Penny and the others safe--

 

Between one step and the next, a force hit him in the chest. He fell to the ground as the air ripped apart with a loud noise, and dazedly stared up at the brilliant red glow of Robot’s face and the seams in his armour. Robot crouched over him, a hand on Will’s chest, until the noise stopped, and then he swiveled and cut through the vegetation with a long blast of his laser. Someone screamed. A spire collapsed nearby, crashing and crackling. Ferns smouldered. Smoke burned his eyes and nose.

 

Will’s mind sluggishly caught up with what had happened. They’d been attacked. Attacked by a… by a human--

 

“Stop,” he croaked, struggling to push himself up. 

 

Robot shoved him back down and hovered over him, four arms outstretched, as that awful noise returned. This time Will could pick out the cacophony of bullets striking Robot’s armour.

 

He curled into a ball as the ferns and earth around him were torn up by the attack, covering his head. He couldn’t do anything but cower and let Robot shield him and wait for Robot to strike back and kill someone and watch the fragile truce they’d built tumble down…

 

Please don’t kill anyone , he begged. Please, please, please.

 

Robot shoved information at him--three human soldiers stood in an arc nearby, firing into the forest. Another was on the ground, her leg severely burned by Robot’s warning shot. Past them, he detected the heat signatures of a dozen colonists. 

 

They don’t know it’s us , Will reasoned. They saw you and thought you were… It pained him to admit that they would fire on Scarecrow with no cause, but it was the only thing that made sense.

 

Robot’s calculations ran through his mind: A complex series of geometric scenarios where Will was struck by a stray bullet in almost every one, and Robot had to kill the security officers in most of them. They could run, but security would likely pursue and the situation would escalate further.

 

Then again, maybe they could use that scenario to their advantage...

 

Turn off your lights , Will thought strongly, trusting Robot to hear him.

 

After a second, Robot’s glowing red face and seams dimmed. 

 

Several seconds later, the shots ceased. Barks of orders cut through the sudden silence. "Follow it! Bring it down!"

 

Get ready to run. If we can get past them, if we can get into the light, they’ll see that it’s us. They’ll stop attacking.

 

He felt Robot’s understanding and agreement, like an invisible nod. Will slowly, slowly tried to gather his feet under himself, terrified of making enough noise to trigger another storm of bullets. He froze when two three-fingered hands slid under his body and legs, easily lifting him off the ground. 

 

Flashlights pierced the darkness and footsteps crunched into the foliage. Will closed his eyes and clamped a hand over his mouth, trusting Robot more than he trusted his ability not to cry out in fear and give away their position.

 

The footsteps drew nearer. Will’s blood roared in his ears. Any moment he expected those shots to deafen him again. 

 

Then, in a heart-stopping and dizzying moment, Robot sprang into the air. Will didn’t know how high he jumped, but the force of it made his stomach drop into his spine.

 

More shouts and shots broke the silence, and then they hit the ground and Robot thudded a few steps, and new voices cried out.

 

STOP SHOOTING! ” 

 

The roar cut through the chaos and Will’s body flooded with relief. Dad.

 

The shots abruptly ceased. Enraged shouting took its place. When Will dared to open his eyes, it was to watch John in his black leather jacket sprint across the brightly lit clearing and tear a long rifle out of the hands of a helmeted security officer. Around them stood other colonists, including a shocked looking Penny. 

 

“If you ever point a weapon at my son again--” John snarled. He let the threat hang in the air for a moment, and then jabbed the man in the chest. “The robots will be the least of your worries.” He stepped back and handed the rifle to Penny, who fumbled it for a moment before planting it barrel-down on the ground.

 

John turned on his heel and pointed at the three other officers. “I told you not to come out here. You invite a gun to the party and it turns into a bloodbath.”

 

“We thought it was the other one,” protested a female officer. “It came out of nowhere!”

 

“I don’t care if he jumped out of your sock drawer--you don’t just shoot at him! Drop your goddamn guns.”

 

“Will!” Maureen appeared in front of Robot, her face ashen and eyes wide. “Oh my God, Will, are you all right? Were you hit?”

 

Will shook his head, ignoring the way he’d begun to shake from the shock. “I’m fine,” he managed. I almost died , he realized belatedly. If just one of those shots had hit him, it could have killed him.

 

“Let me see you. Will, Will…” She stepped in and tried to put her arms around him, but he cringed and Robot thudded backward, leaving her empty-handed and frowning. “Robot, put him down, please. I just… I need to make sure that he’s not hurt.”

 

“I’m fine,” Will said again. “Robot protected me.” Like he always protects me. He squirmed. “You can let me go now.”

 

With some reluctance--Will felt an echo of Robot’s calculated weighing of the chance that he could come to harm by standing on his own feet--Robot set him on the ground.

 

Will wobbled but forced himself not to lean on anyone. He needed to be stronger. He stared resolutely at Maureen’s pinched expression, almost glaring. “I’m not hurt,” he said.

 

She moved in again and it was Will’s turn to back up. If she hugged him, he didn’t think he could keep up his brave front. He hated the flash of sadness that crossed her face, but it was better than the very real possibility that he might just crumple into a sobbing ball if she caught him in an embrace.

 

“What the hell were you thinking?!” Will thought John was shouting at the officers again until he shoved his way past Maureen to grab Will by the shoulders. “We told you not to come here,” he said, giving him a little shake. 

 

Will flinched from the blaze of anger in John’s usually warm eyes and the way his grip on Will’s shoulders was just on the verge of pain, as though John almost couldn’t restrain himself. “I… Dad, I thought there was trouble. With Scarecrow--”

 

“And you thought showing up here with Robot in his goddamn battle mode would help?!”

 

Bringing Robot into it replaced Will’s chagrin with Will’s hot fury. “It’s not his battle mode,” he seethed, tearing himself out of John’s grasp. “It’s his normal mode . And yes! Yes, I thought we could help! If you found Scarecrow and he was scared or angry, he could be dangerous to you and himself. He needs a friend. Robot and I could help him.”

 

“Will,” John groaned, palming his face. “For one, he’s not here . We didn’t find him. For another, who do you think we are? Why can’t you trust us? We’re on your side . We’re on Robot’s side . We’re even on Scarecrow’s side . You have to trust us. This is a delicate situation. You have to listen to us, you have to stop barging in and dragging Robot with you.”

 

“He’s not here?” Will looked around and his searching gaze landed on Penny. “Penny, you said you found him.”

 

“What?!” she yelped. “No I didn’t. I said we found trouble. We found a place where he’d been hiding.”

 

“Will!” John snapped. “That’s not the point. Son, you almost died . These people almost killed you . What do you think would’ve happened? Robot would’ve gone on a rampage. I would’ve--shit, I would’ve rampaged, too.” He hauled Will in for a hug. “Will,” he muttered against his shoulder. “I know you want to be brave, but sometimes it’s smarter to just stay put and listen.”

 

“I’m not going to sit still and do nothing if I think my friends or family are in danger,” Will said stiffly, his throat tight and eyes stinging.

 

“Then think about Robot. He listens to you. Think hard before you put him in danger.” 

 

That same black chill seeped into Will’s veins. He glanced back at Robot, who still stood poised for a fight, his orange-stained face marked with radiating lines of anger. Was his dad right? Had he put Robot in danger by coming here? 

 

He’d certainly gotten shot because of Will.

 

And one of the security officers was being carried away on a stretcher because of Will. 

 

And Maureen looked on the verge of tears because of Will.

 

Did I do this?  

 

One bad choice, and Will had hurt them all. It was a sobering thought.

 

Rich is right , reminded his dark subconscious, the phrase repeating with every struggling breath. Rich is right.

 

John stepped back and cleared his throat. “All right. We’ll talk about this later. How the hell did you get here, anyway?”

 

“I signed out an Alpaca,” Will said, low voiced, avoiding John's disapproving stare.

 

“How? Command locked them all down.”

 

Will shook his head. 

 

“Okay, fine.” John sighed. “All right. Penny’ll take you home.” Penny nodded and crossed the clearing to Will’s side. She offered a thin, sympathetic smile. “Robot,” John continued, “you’re with me. We’ll go to the work site tonight.”

 

“Wait, what?” Will’s head jerked up. “What about Scarecrow? What did you find? Where is he?”

 

“The alien fucker killed a kid,” someone spat. “Probably the engineers, too.”

 

What?! ” Will whirled and found the leader of the security officers glaring at him, her rifle still ready at her side. “He wouldn’t just kill someone.”

 

“There’s not enough evidence to determine what happened--” Maureen started.

 

“A kid’s bloody shirt isn’t enough evidence? Scratches all over the walls? Signs of a fight all over the goddamn forest?” The officer jerked her chin at a cave nearby, vines pulled away, and lights glowing within.

 

“The clothes were folded ,” Maureen countered. “And they weren’t torn off someone’s body--they were taken off. Someone undressed in there and folded those clothes. And then they tended their injuries. There were wipes and bandage refuse in there. Does that sound like someone was murdered in that cave?”

 

“I don’t know how aliens think. Maybe it was playing a game with the kid. Who knows?”

 

Will looked between them, shocked by what he was hearing. Scarecrow must have been found by someone. But who? How? Where had they gone? Why had they gone?

 

What would happen when the rest of the colony found them?

 

What do you think? he wondered, trying to push his concerns toward Robot. That would have been a good time for Scarecrow to open communications with Robot and let him know what was going on.

 

Robot, his aggression slowly diminishing, opened an inferior hand, inviting Will to touch his palm. Sighing inwardly--he knew what this meant, another bolus of information and possibly a black out--Will hissed at Penny to get her attention. 

 

“Hold me up,” he said, opening an arm for her to fit underneath. She frowned in confusion but didn’t argue. When she was solidly in place, he set his hand on the narrow, articulated plates of Robot’s palm.

 

He’d expected a memory of Scarecrow, but instead he saw himself from years earlier, from Robot’s towering perspective. His own round face was upturned and full of awe, even when a long claw grazed the air near his cheek. Will felt a squeeze of… something. For himself, he remembered just how awesome Robot was, how he’d rescued Will from that wildfire with such ease, how it had been the start of his most important friendship. From Robot, he got a sense of deeply layered codes running through information and twisting out of conformity. 

 

They had both changed at that moment.

 

Will returned to the clearing with a deep, sharp inhale. He found himself sagging between Penny and Robot and struggled to get his legs back under him. He shook his head to clear it.

 

“Are you okay?” Penny whispered urgently.

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Robot was telling me what he thinks happened.”

 

“What?”

 

“Whoever found Scarecrow, I don’t think they’re in danger. I think… I think they’re safer now than they’ve ever been.”

 

“Oh.” Penny searched his face, blinking rapidly. “Are you sure? I mean, this is… this is Scarecrow we’re talking about. He could barely stand you , and you’re like the robot whisperer.”

 

“Robot’s sure. But that means… Penny, we can’t let security find them. If security tries to get between them or take away this person or lock Scarecrow up…”

 

“Yeah. I hear you. But aren’t you… worried? About them? You don’t want to find them?”

 

Will mulled that over. He did want to. He wanted to know if Scarecrow was well. He wanted to know who could bring Scarecrow out of hiding. He wanted to help them.

 

But… it wasn’t worth it if it meant the possibility of yet another disaster.

 

“We can’t let anyone else find them.”

 

“There’s no stopping them,” Penny said solemnly, shaking her head. “They collected all the clothes for testing and everyone in the colony’s DNA is on file. All they have to do is analyze the blood.”

 

“Shit.”

 

“Will!” 

 

Will ignored Penny’s shocked whisper. He glanced around, hunting for a possible solution. “Where did they take it?” he asked. “The clothes?”

 

“Oh, no. Will, Don’t do this.”

 

"I have to!"

 

"But what if you're wrong? What if… what if they're hurt? What if they need help?"

 

Will looked up at Robot, his watchful presence a source of strength, and weighed the possibility that Scarecrow had gone off with someone and they were sick or injured or in need of aid. But the robots weren't like humans--they didn't capture people. They didn't hold them against their will. They hunted and they killed, but they didn't have the human urge to master their prey. If that person was alive and Scarecrow had gone with them, Scarecrow would help them. 

 

He trusted Robot--and Scarecrow--more than he trusted the others. 

 

He could only hope his family would forgive him for causing even more trouble…

 

"And the struggle out here was obviously with a native creature," Maureen argued loudly, facing down the security commander. "The blood out here wasn't human."

 

"That doesn't prove anything," countered her opponent. 

 

Will hunted with his eyes, desperate to find some sign of those clothes, but he didn't see anything except curious, exhausted colonists watching the growing debate, the pylons, a few Chariots parked nearby in the thick growths of ferns and fungal spires. Maybe it was still in the cave?

 

At a loss, he turned back to Penny and tried to win her over with the saddest Little Brother eyes he could manage. "Scarecrow was there for us when we needed him," he urged her. "He saved my life."

 

"I know," she sighed, pained. "Will, I know that. But… he's with a kid and they might be hurt."

 

"I was a kid when I met Robot. And he never let me down. Even when I--" he cut himself off. "He never let me down. So I'm not going to let him down, or Scarecrow. Please help me, Penny."

 

"Ugh." She looked away, scowling. 

 

" Please ," he whispered. 

 

When her glare returned to him, his heart dropped as he expected another refusal. Then her eyes rolled exaggeratedly toward the Chariots. "The one on the right," she muttered. 

 

He leaned against her. “Thank you. Thank you .” He twisted to meet Robot’s orange-tinged gaze. “I’ll be right back.”

 

“Will--” Penny started.

 

Before she could stop him, he slipped out from between her and Robot. With the heated argument in the centre of the clearing--now involving both Maureen and John and two others re-enacting the struggle that must have occurred in front of the cave and the three uninjured security officers trying to shout over them--and with Robot’s ability to attract and snare the attention of anyone not invested in the argument, Will was able to edge nonchalantly along the perimeter of the clearing. At any moment, he expected someone to stop him, to cry out or grab him, but he arrived at the Chariot without incident. 

 

He crept to the far side, tried the passenger door, and found it miraculously unlocked. Slowly, quietly, he opened the door just enough to slide inside. Staying low, he crawled through the dim interior, hunting for anything that looked like an evidence bag. After a few tries, his hands shaking and doubts growing with every one, he opened a hard case. Inside, he found a bag of what looked like dirty clothes and smaller bags of used wipes and garbage. 

 

“Thank you, thank you,” he whispered under his breath. He hauled the case back to the passenger door and crept out, planning to maybe disappear into the undergrowth to hide it, or dump it in a river, or something .

 

Hey !” A man rounded the Chariot’s front and his shout made Will jump and almost drop the case. “What are you doing?!”

 

Will launched himself backwards at a stumbling run, barely avoiding a grasping hand. He burst out from behind the Chariot and realized he had no chance of disappearing into the foliage now, they’d catch up, get the case, he’d be back to square one--

 

“Robot!” he cried thinly, hoping he would hear and understand the mad tumble of thoughts running through his head. He swung the case around and hurled it up into the air above the clearing.

 

It exploded in a flash of light, scattering melted plastic and metal and burning fabric.

 

The colonists nearly exploded themselves, voices of rage and fear--and one or two of pain as the debris struck exposed skin--rising to drown out the night. Someone grabbed Will’s arm and he didn’t resist being dragged to the centre of the clearing and his shocked, horrified parents.

 

What did you do? ” John shouted. “Will, what are you thinking?!”

 

“He’s helping the aliens!” declared the security commander, her rifle rising. Before the point could get anywhere near Will, Robot loomed up beside her, plucked it out of her hands, and bent it in half. 

 

Someone shot at him, someone else screamed as a bullet ricocheted and found a fleshy target. 

 

STOP SHOOTING! ” John roared again.

 

Colonists boiled around them, running for the safety of the Chariots. Someone pushed Will to his knees. He sagged there, head bowed, dimly aware of the chaos around him. 

 

I did the right thing, he told himself. I protected my friends. 

 

I did the right thing.

 

Chapter Text

14

 

“If he was going to kill you, you’d be dead by now.” 

 

The words finally seemed to sink in for the three security officers. It probably helped that only one of them still held a gun and he had already accidentally shot a colonist in the arm. 

 

John stood before the officers where they had fanned out in a semicircle, keeping himself between them and Robot. He raised his hands placatingly and spoke sternly, soothingly, seeming unconcerned that the last armed officer was pointing a weapon at him and Robot stood only a step behind him, glowing red, his clawed fingers slowly opening and closing. “Just put it down,” he commanded with the kind of quiet confidence that only came from years of facing down near-certain death. “You’re only going to hurt innocent people. More innocent people. Captain Amahle,” he directed toward their leader, “I know you don’t want this to continue.”

 

Will watched wearily. Beside him, a male colonist kept a firm hand on his shoulder to encourage him to remain on his knees on the muddy, churned ground. As if Will even had the strength or motivation to rise. He’d made his choice, he’d done all in his power to protect his friends, he was done.

 

“Get it out of here,” growled Captain Amahle. “Command is going to hear about this. That thing will never set foot in the colony again.”

 

“Robot is the reason we got to the colony,” John countered. “And you’re right. Command will hear about this. They’ll be well-informed that trigger-happy security officers fired on my son and injured other bystanders.”

 

Captain Amahle barked a curse. “Fine. Stand down, Erdene.” She slashed at the armed officer and he slowly lowered his weapon. “Robinson,” she snapped, gesturing at Will. “On your feet. You’re coming with us.” 

 

The colonist hauled Will up by a grip on his jacket.

 

“Wh-what?” Will stuttered, scrambling to get his boots under him as his collar painfully constricted his neck. “Why?”

 

Robot hissed and his red face turned toward the new threat. 

 

“Let go, let go, let go,” Will mumbled urgently to the man, envisioning him being burned away to a pair of smoking boots and a single hand ending at a ragged, cauterized stump. “Now!” 

 

The colonist dropped him and stepped away with a muttered, “Fucking robot.”

 

Robot thudded to Will’s side, his glower never leaving the man, who quickly backpedaled, tripping on a clump of torn earth in his hurry. 

 

“Okay, let’s all stay calm,” John continued, side-stepping to keep himself between the officers and Will and Robot. “There’s no point fighting. What’s done is done. So let’s all get back to work. There’s still my engineers to find and a colony to build. Agreed?”

 

“Because of your son, you’ll never find those missing folks, the kid, or that murderous fucking alien.”

 

“There’s no evidence that Scarecrow hurt anyone,” Maureen interjected. 

 

John waved her down. “We’ll share our reports with Command,” he said. “There’s nothing more we can do here.”

 

“I’m taking him into custody.” Captain Amahle nodded at Will. “The kid’s a menace. He should be locked up.”

 

John twisted to look at Will and his angry, eight-foot guardian. He turned back to the officers. “Well,” he said slowly. “You could try. If you were planning on demolishing the detention centre, anyway.”

 

“Is that a threat?!”

 

“It’s a warning. Just go, Captain. We’re not happy with Will’s actions, either. We’ll deal with it. It’s a family matter.”

 

Will shivered at his father’s flat tone, aware that he’d made a choice that John definitely did not agree with.

 

“Robinson family matters tend to become colony matters,” Captain Amahle seethed. She pointed a gloved finger at John. “This isn’t over. This is far from over.”

 

“Tell me about it,” John sighed, rubbing his short, still-perfect hair. “Go find my engineers, Captain. Please.”

 

Muttering to herself, Captain Amahle turned stiffly on her heel and began snapping orders at her officers. “Move out. Find the alien’s trail. We’ll hunt it down.”

 

As the officers and other colonists cleared away, many of them shooting lingering angry and fearful stares at Will and Robot, Will slowly relaxed. The immediate crisis was over. 

 

Then John, Maureen, and Penny joined him and he tensed, almost as afraid of their disappointment as he had been afraid of getting shot.

 

John and Maureen stood in front of him, arms crossed, their faces stony.

 

“Mom,” Will choked, barely audible over the rumble and crackle of the Chariots starting up and rolling away. “Dad. I--” His voice died under the crushing weight of their gazes. He didn't know if he should apologize or defend himself. 

 

“I don’t even know what to say,” Maureen started. She glanced at John, and then back to Will. “I don’t, Will. There’s nothing I can say that will make what you did okay. Someone is in danger out there and you destroyed our one chance of finding them. What if they need medical attention?” 

 

There was no point in arguing. Will stared at the ground, his vision blurry as moisture gathered in his eyes, the product of frustration and a fear that they were right. He’d been so sure that Scarecrow would be just like Robot, would help the person who had found him, but how could he know, really? And defending a human from attack was far different from helping them care for an injury. If Will was mortally wounded, would Robot know how to treat him? Would he bring Will to the medical centre? Even if he would, would Scarecrow, who hated humans?

 

Doubts squeezed around his lungs and heart. 

 

“We have done everything we can to make the others accept Robot,” John said quietly. "We've tried to protect you from the fear that many of them feel. And you… did this ?" He waved at the empty clearing and the one remaining Chariot, encompassing the entire situation. "What are we supposed to do now?"

 

Will pressed his lips together before they could start to tremble. He shoved his hands into his pockets. His gaze shifted to Scarecrow’s cave, avoiding his parents.

 

"You made a mistake, Will," Maureen interjected when the silence dragged. "And Robot is going to be the one to suffer the consequences."

 

Will looked up at Robot and found him watchful, quiet, calming to his usual blue-white stars. How could anyone think he was dangerous when he only ever defended himself and Will? Sure, he could go a bit overboard at times and he didn’t always understand the human social context of situations, but he was learning. 

 

It was Will who made mistakes, not Robot.

 

You’re his weakness , hissed that insidious voice. 

 

“Will, do you have anything to say for yourself?” John pressed.

 

Will shook his head, mute.

 

“Well, think of something. Command is going to come calling.”

 

“Penny,” Maureen said, “take Will to his vehicle and drive him back to the colony. Take him to see Judy, and then take him home. He’s not allowed to leave except for school.”

 

“Sure,” Penny replied softly. “Should I come back?”

 

“The search is over,” John answered, his voice tight. “There’s too much at stake for the entire colony to be out searching. Only the security forces will keep looking. I think Command has some drones out here, too.”

 

Reminded of Hastings and his concerns, Will’s head jerked up. “Dad--” he started, but his voice died when he caught sight of John’s hard, cold glare. 

 

“What is it?” John snapped.

 

“Nothing. I… I’m sorry.” Will shrank away. 

 

“Robot, back into your two-armed config. We’re rolling out.” John jabbed a thumb at the Chariot.

 

Robot didn’t move. 

 

“Robot.” John’s tone lowered warningly. “Don’t let Will rub off on you. We have work to do. Besides, you have coworkers now. It would be a bad frigging time to let them down.”

 

Will shook himself and edged closer to Robot and gingerly touched one of his inferior arms. “It’s okay,” he murmured. “Please listen to him. He’s right.”

 

“Damn right I am.”

 

Robot’s starry face tilted to examine Will’s slouched figure. Four arms went around Will, pulling him closer, urging him to lean against his hard frame. Will wanted to rest against him, but wretched guilt made it impossible. He had no right to take comfort from the friend he had let down the most.

 

So he pulled away, feeling Robot’s claws release him only reluctantly.

 

“Have a good week,” he muttered mechanically, backing toward Penny. “See you on Friday.”

 

“Two arms,” John reminded Robot firmly.

 

Will turned away before Robot shifted, struggling with the injustice and his inability to change it.

 

"I just don't know what's going on in his head," he heard John mutter as he passed into the first layer of ferns. 

 

"We should take him to see Dr Choi, this could be a symptom…" 

 

Will blocked out the sound of their voices, focusing only on the darkness and the few tiny flashes of light as Proxima's native creatures struggled to survive. 

 

**

 

“Well, you seem to be okay,” Judy said, tearing the blood pressure cuff off of Will’s bicep and turning to hang it up. 

 

“Somehow,” Penny commented dryly where she leaned by the examination room door. “You should’ve seen it, Judy. They meant business.”

 

Will shivered and slouched a little lower on the examination table, making the paper covering crinkle loudly. The bright lights and antiseptic smell of the medical clinic were a far cry from the darkness and smell of torn vegetation and earth and the stink of smouldering foliage, but he still felt haunted by that moment when he’d nearly been ripped in half by the over-eager security officers.

 

“Pen,” Judy murmured, as though warning Penny to stop reminding Will of something he couldn’t stop thinking about, anyway. She returned to Will. “Will, you’re fine physically, but how are you? Otherwise? Mom told me some of what happened. That’s not… I mean, I don’t think I would be okay afterward.” She laid a warm, strong hand on his shoulder and gazed intently into his face.

 

“I’m fine,” Will said, looking away. He shuffled forward and slid off the table. “Just another day.” When he dropped to his feet, he wobbled a bit, but recovered quickly with his sisters looking on. “I just want to go home.”

 

“Good thing it’s where you want to be. You’re going to be stuck there for a long time.” Penny pushed away from the wall. She looked exhausted--dark shadows under her eyes, red hair escaping from her braids to form a halo around her head. The past few days must have affected her mood--there was a definite sting to her words. 

 

“I did what I thought was right,” Will muttered. He picked at a new bandage Judy had plastered over his knuckles--at some point he’d lacerated the back of his hand, probably when he was either falling or cowering. 

 

“And someone got shot.” Penny arched a brow. 

 

“I know.” She didn’t need to remind him. He could still hear the screams in his head, first the security officer and then the colonist.

 

“We all do what we think is right,” Judy interjected. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out the way we plan. But at least you did something." In a lofty tone, she quoted, "It is better to act and repent than not to act and regret.”

 

“I... “ Will didn’t know what to say to that. Judy’s unexpected support raised a lump in his throat. All he could think was that she was wrong, that he would rather be sitting there full of regret if it meant he hadn’t ruined any chance of Robot gaining the trust of the colonists.

 

“Go get some rest. Both of you.” Judy rubbed his back and he edged away from her. He didn’t need comfort. He needed to be alone to think. “You okay to drive?” she asked Penny.

 

“Yeah. There’s a few more klicks in the old girl--” A yawn cut Penny off. She pressed the back of her wrist to her open mouth. “We’ll make it,” she added after she’d recovered, blinking her glossy, blood-shot eyes. 

 

“We all will,” Judy said firmly. “And we did. We made it this far, there’s no limit to what we can do.”

 

“Ugh, don’t tell Will that. Who knows what he’ll do next.” Eyes rolling, Penny pushed her way out of the room.

 

Will gathered his filthy jacket from the back of a chair and slowly pulled it on. He’d begun to feel the effects of his wild ride through the forests of Proxima Centauri B: one of his shoulders ached, maybe from his impact with the ground; he suspected he had a bruise on his sternum in the shape of a three-clawed hand; and his head had begun to throb, both behind his eyes and up the back of his neck. 

 

“Don’t skimp on your meds tonight," Judy said as she walked him to the clinic waiting room, where the majority of waiting patients were just as muddy as Will and holding their arms in rudimentary slings or raising turned ankles. “You look like you can use some rest.”

 

“Yeah,” he sighed, both annoyed and comforted by her usual bossiness. “Aye-aye, Captain.”

 

She smirked and gently shoved his shoulder. “Shut it. You gave us all a heart attack today, so keep your sass to yourself.”

 

“You weren’t even there.” Will rubbed his shoulder exaggeratedly. 

 

“Mom sent a text that started with, ‘Will was in a fire fight’. I was halfway to the Chariot when she added that you weren’t injured.” She shoved him again. “I’m glad you’re okay, little brother.”

 

“Do you push all your patients around?” Will complained, half-smiling when she rolled her eyes. 

 

“Only the really naughty ones,” said a familiar male voice behind Will, accompanied by a strong clap on the back. “I should know,” Don added, grinning as he joined them. “She pushes me around all the time.”

 

“But you like it,” Will countered. 

 

“Oh!” Don recoiled, laughing. “The jig is up. Will figured out my secret.”

 

"Not much of a secret."

 

“Come on, boys,” Judy said sternly, gesturing at the clinic’s double doors. “I have to get back to work.”

 

“I brought you coffee,” Don protested, lifting a covered mug.

 

“Okay, you get five minutes.” Judy flashed a puzzled, almost conflicted glance at Will, as though she didn’t know how to get him to leave and Don to stay.

 

Will wasn’t so oblivious that he missed that look. “Bye, guys,” he said, uncomfortably aware of the growing tension between his sister and the handsome friend of the Robinson family. “Thanks, Judy.”

 

“No problem, Will.”

 

“See you, Will. Take it easy.”

 

Any good humour sloughed off like dead skin as Will trudged away from Judy, Don, and their developing thing . The clinic doors glided open at his approach, releasing him into the warm darkness. He felt like days had passed since he’d left Gideon at the quarry, but it had been mere hours. Despite the black sky, it was barely supper time. 

 

He found the Alpaca in the clinic’s mostly empty lot and slid into the passenger seat. Penny didn’t look up from her comm for a moment and Will gave her space to finish whatever message she was sending. He didn’t much want to talk, anyway. Penny had driven in silence from Scarecrow’s cave and Will couldn't figure out if she was angry with him or just tired. 

 

They maintained their silence throughout the journey to the depot nearest their home, and from there to the house. 

 

“I’m going to have a shower,” Penny declared as she stepped through the front door.

 

“Okay,” Will said.

 

He stood in the entryway for a time as Penny disappeared down the back hall, remembering waking up that morning, letting Robot in, eating breakfast under his friend’s watchful gaze, and chatting about anything and everything that popped into his head. His stomach cramped at the thought, followed by a surge of nausea as his worsening migraine responded to his hunger pangs. Before it got any worse, he dragged himself to the kitchen medicine cabinet to get his usual painkillers, and then heated up something to eat. After a few bites, though, his stomach churning, he gave up and tossed it into the compost bin. He retreated to his room and set his desk lamp to its lowest setting before sinking onto his desk chair. 

 

What did I do?  

 

The thought marched continuously around his aching head, accompanied by painful recollections of each action he’d taken, each mistake he’d made. He leaned forward, fingers digging into his scalp. 

 

What did I do?

 

The sound of the shower cutting off brought his attention back to the present. He waited until he heard Penny exit the bathroom and shut the door to her bedroom before he ventured out to take her place.

 

Showering just reminded him of Robot. He let the hot water pound his shoulders and neck and thought about awkwardly trying to rinse Robot off in that cramped space. 

 

That thought led to another, and then another, until Will was bitterly remembering Robot’s curiosity as Will jerked off in front of him. Twice. 

 

What’s wrong with me?

 

Will called himself a friend to Robot, but what had he done, really? Dragged him into trouble, took advantage of him, gained some kind of twisted enjoyment from his innocent attention? Shied away from truly understanding their connection, never really sought to know Robot’s history. Never really tried to know Robot.  

 

He’d been self-righteous, self-centred… selfish. 

 

He pressed his forehead to the cool tile as his stomach twisted and twisted and his head pounded and his burning eyes finally overflowed. 

 

Bile and saliva flooded his mouth. Will sank to his knees and threw up the few bites he’d eaten before his shower.

 

When he emerged, weary but clean, he found Penny in the living room, eating in front of an action movie and buried under a blanket. The pain killers had done their work, reducing his migraine to a low key pulse, so he warmed up some soy loaf and joined Penny on the couch.

 

A moment after he sat down, she paused the movie. 

 

Will blinked at her, expecting her to snap at him to get out.

 

Instead, she curled sideways to look at him, pulled up her legs, and said, “Can I ask you a question?”

 

Will blinked again. He chewed and swallowed. “That was a question.”

 

She snorted, a corner of her mouth drawing up, and stretched a leg to poke him with a toe. “Two questions, smart ass.” Her smile quickly died. “My book is supposed to come out this week, but I don’t know if it should. There are four people missing and we can’t keep looking for them. Their friends and families are worried. We’re all worried. Is this a good time for a new book?”

 

Will took another bite and chewed it thoughtfully. He was stunned that she was speaking to him, much less asking him something so important. No wonder she had been snapping at him, if this was weighing on her mind.

 

He glanced around the room for some kind of inspiration, and his gaze landed on the still frame of the movie’s heroine somersaulting through a dozen lasers. With an idea growing, he returned his attention to Penny. “What are you doing?” he asked. 

 

“Um. Talking to you?”

 

“No. I mean. Before we started talking, what were you doing?”

 

Her brows beetled in confusion. “Stuffing my face and vegging out in front of the TV?”

 

“Are you any less worried about the missing engineers?”

 

“No, of course not.”

 

“Well then.” Will shrugged. “What’s wrong with a new book for people to stuff their face and veg out with?”

 

“Huh. I… didn’t think about it that way.” Penny looked down at her lap. “Vijay thinks I should postpone it. I wasn’t sure. But maybe you’re right. Maybe people need a distraction. Something to veg out to when they’re too tired to search and too worried to sleep.” She gave a thin, self-deprecating laugh. “If anyone reads it, anyway. I don’t think anyone will even notice when it comes out. And, um, I’m kind of okay with that.”

 

“They’re going to love it,” Will assured her automatically. Then he paused and recanted, “No, I think some people are going to hate it.”

 

“What?!” Penny squawked.

 

Will chuckled. “I’m sure there’s a few people who wish the Robinsons hadn’t survived the journey. They may have a problem with the whole theme of your book.”

 

“Ugh!” Penny collapsed backward and covered her head with her blanket. “I should just call it off,” she moaned, muffled.

 

Laughing more, Will finished off his last bite, set his plate aside, and tried to tug the blanket down. When that didn’t work, he shuffled to the floor beside her and lifted the edge of the blanket to peer in at her hidden face. “Penny,” he called softly, pitching his voice low and eerie. “Pen-ny… It’s me, the ghost of your future fame. Don’t give up, Penny. Proxima needs you and your purple prose, heavy-handed metaphors, and questionable misuse of grammar--Ack!” 

 

Before he could blink, she lunged at him, grabbing him around the chest and heaving him half onto the couch. He wiggled, more than a little uncomfortable with the sudden contact and the fact that his sister could still pick him up, and froze when he felt her shaking.

 

“Pen?” he asked awkwardly, patting her damp hair where she’d buried her face into his pyjama top. “Um. Are you okay?”

 

“No,” she said nasally. “I thought you were dead.”

 

“Oh.” He shifted uneasily onto the couch beside her and leaned stiffly against the arm as Penny continued squeezing him. “I’m okay,” he assured her. “Judy even said so and she’s always right.”

 

“I know.” Her arms tightened. “But she didn’t see it.”

 

“See what?”

 

“We knew those idiots had been shooting at something. And then Robot jumped out of the bushes and you were just balled up in his arms and he was glowing red and that made you look red--” She cut off with a sniffle and squeezed him hard enough to make him grunt in discomfort.

 

“Sorry, Penny,” he wheezed. “I didn’t mean to make you worry.” 

 

She sniffled again, wetly, and her face moved suspiciously against his chest.

 

“Did you just wipe your snot on me?” he demanded, contrition fading into disgust.

 

“Yeah,” she mumbled. “What’cha gonna do about it?”

 

He snorted. “I’ll only buy two copies of your book.” He patted her head again and, after a second, let his hand rest on her hair. His amusement faded as he remembered the events of the day. Since they’d left that clearing, he’d alternated between numb acceptance and sharp terror and deep, aching regret, seeming to switch between the emotions with every breath. He hadn’t considered what it must have looked like from the outside. He hadn’t thought that his family would be just as afraid as he was. “Sorry,” he whispered again.

 

“It’s okay.” She finally pushed away from him, rubbing her nose on her sleeve. She sat up and regarded him with red-rimmed eyes, her face pale and puffy. “Just don’t do it again.”

 

“I’ll try.” He folded his arms and looked away from her somber expression. “You’re the one who said you needed more excitement for your next book.”

 

“Will! Just for that I’m going to write you out of the second one.”

 

“But you are going to write it.” He smirked as she stuck out her tongue at him. “ And publish them.”

 

“You think it’s good enough?” Penny sighed, sagging again. 

 

“Of course I do. I helped write it. And I have a starring role.”

 

“Not for long if you keep this up.”

 

Will ducked, laughing, as a pillow whizzed by his head. He jumped away from the couch, collected his dishes, and hurried to the kitchen. “I’d better go before I turn into a footnote,” he called over his shoulder. “G’night.”

 

“‘Night, Will. I’m glad you’re still alive.”

 

Will was smiling when he sank onto his bed, but the expression faded quickly. The darkness pushed in at him, bringing bad memories. He almost reached out to Robot, but shied away from the thought. He’d been leaning on Robot far too much. 

 

He probably wouldn't be able to contact him, anyway. The place in his mind where Robot usually seemed to sit felt dull, exhausted, like an overworked muscle. After the many times Robot had shared his perceptions, Will wasn't surprised. 

 

Should I tell Dr Choi that I can see what Robot sees? On purpose? he wondered. As always, the new, more consistent and controlled, level to their connection didn't shock him--it seemed like a natural extension of their existing connection--but he wasn't sure anyone else would feel the same. He could imagine himself sitting in a white room, telling Dr Choi what pictures Robot was looking at in another room. 

 

And if they knew Robot could see what he saw… How much worse would the suspicion be? Apparently most of the adults already thought Will was working against them somehow. 

 

If it came down to it, who would Will side with? Robot or his own species?

 

That's a stupid question , he chided himself. Robot is with me, and I'm human. I won't have to choose. 

 

But the question did convince him that, no, he shouldn't reveal that particular fact. His family already knew Robot could show him things; he didn't want to worry them any more. 

 

His head throbbed in time with his pulse, as though his painkillers couldn't quite fight whatever was triggering his migraines. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed the heel of his hand into an eye socket. Were they getting worse? It seemed like every Sunday night he suffered a particularly bad headache, as if part of him really didn't want to go to school in the morning. 

 

I think this one is deserved , he reasoned. I probably pulled something or hit my head. 

 

He covered his head with his pillow, wishing he could block out the ache along with the rest of his problems. There was no escape from either, though, and it was a very, very long time before he fell asleep.

 

**

 

At the chime of the front door, Gideon barely glanced up from his game. It wasn’t one of his friends, so he wasn’t going to bother getting up to answer it.

 

It chimed again.

 

“Gideon!” his mother shouted from the bathroom. “Get the door!”

 

“Les can get it!” he shouted back, hoping that Nida would forget Les was still working in the greenhouse.

 

“He’s working. Get the fucking door!”

 

Another chime.

 

Ugh . Gideon reluctantly paused his game and levered himself up off the floor. Every limb complained, reminding him that he’d gone all-out during the morning’s soccer game in the hopes of impressing his guest. Now, hours later, he was wondering if it had been worth it. Did Will even care if Gideon was any good at soccer? Or did he just care if Gideon could do him favours? 

 

He limped to the door and triggered it to open, and his brows jumped to see who stood on the other side. “Mr Hastings,” he exclaimed happily. “Hey, mate. I was wondering when you’d show up.”

 

Hastings smiled the friendly smile that Gideon remembered so fondly from when his father would invite Hastings over for supper or brunch or whatever old people used as excuses to get together. Those had been good times--the few months each year that Ben Adler spent at home with his family--and Hastings had been a frequent visitor at their home.

 

“Gideon,” Hastings said with his usual warmth. “Wow, look how tall you are now. You look just like your dad.”

 

“Yeah, well, it’s been a while. You look the same.” Other than a bit of fading in his hair and a few more lines around his eyes, Hastings could have stepped straight out of Gideon’s memories.

 

Hastings chuckled. “At my age, you don’t really change much.” He held out his arms, revealing a bottle in one hand. “I forgot to let your mom know I was coming, but I hope she’ll forgive me. I brought wine.”

 

“Pft. If it’s Hayasaka’s wine, she might. Anything else, she’s not into it.” Gideon accepted the bottle and immediately recognized the simple black and white label. "Good choice. You nailed it." He eyed Hastings for a moment, wondering if he'd already known Nida's favourite. But Haya hadn't released his sake until about a year ago...

 

Well, like it mattered, anyway. Hastings did seem to just know things. He always had.

 

"You're here for supper?" Gideon asked, backing away so Hastings could enter.

 

"That's the hope." Hastings tilted his head as though listening, and Gideon noticed what he'd heard--the shower running. He smiled again. "What bad timing. Maybe I should come back later."

 

"No!" Gideon blurted, and then tried to act natural, scratching the back of his head. "Nah, it's cool, mate. You can come in." 

 

"Well, if you don't mind keeping an old guy company. I hope I don't disappoint you--I'm so boring these days. All I do is work on the recovery plan from the last two years." He entered as he spoke, and sat on a nearby chair to remove his shoes. Even his uniform and shiny black shoes were the same. 

 

The last two years… Gideon's attention immediately caught on the words. "Th-that's not boring at all," he said eagerly. "You know, I still don't--I mean, no one's told us what… what happened." He tried to keep his voice level and was glad Hastings was still looking at his shoes, and didn't notice how Gideon's hands started to shake. "To my dad," he finished.

 

"Really?" Hastings stood and frowned. "No one's told you? What about your mother? They must've told her?"

 

"I… I don't know. I just know that Les and I don't know what the fuck happened to him." He winced after the curse dropped between them, expecting Hastings to scold him. 

 

Instead, Hastings tsked and gestured for Gideon to join him in the kitchen. "Well, that is untenable. Here, Gideon, heat some water. We'll warm up the sake so it's ready for your mother. Now, I am very, very surprised. Considering who your new best friend is."

 

"What?" Gideon looked up from the pots cupboard. He didn't need an answer to already know to whom Hastings was referring--he knew Will had somehow been involved in what happened. But he hadn't expected to hear it stated so plainly. 

 

"It's a sensitive situation, though," Hastings continued. He leaned back against a counter, fingers drumming at his sides, relaxed gaze resting on the fridge. "Everyone in the twenty-fifth wave signed plenty of non-disclosures to keep everything under wraps. I don't blame him for keeping some information to himself. But, then again, I know you've done a less than legal favour or two for the youngest Robinson. Would it really hurt for him to do the same?"

 

Gideon fumbled the sake bottle, splashing hot water on his arm. "What do you mean?" he asked tightly, rubbing his stinging arm on his shirt.

 

Hastings regarded him directly, a warm smile in his brown eyes. "I mean, you might want to look for cameras before you use illegal authorization codes to help your friend sign out a critical vehicle when the colony is in lock down."

 

Gideon groaned and palmed his face. He'd been so high on Will called me for help, I'm gonna be his fucking hero! that he hadn't even considered that the depot would be under surveillance. Idiot. "Shit. Look, it was a one time thing, I found those codes carved into a rock, I don't even know where they came from--" He cut off when he noticed Hastings laughing. Instead of mocking, Hastings just seemed… amused. But in that warm, reassuring way that he had. 

 

"Don't worry," he chuckled with a shrug. "The video's been purged. You're family. I'm not going to let you get in trouble just for helping a good friend."

 

Relief made Gideon sag. "Wow, uh, thanks, Mr Hastings. That's huge." 

 

"My pleasure. Maybe you can return the favour one day. And, speaking of favours, remember what I said about the young Master Robinson. I'm afraid that my hands, too, are tied when it comes to giving you the information that you want--no, need . But he might not be incapacitated just by signing his name." The words were harsh, but the way he said it made it sound like a compliment. "I know he has an innocent face that makes it seem like he doesn't know much, but I have it on good authority that he knows more than he lets on."

 

Gideon's eyes narrowed and he tried very hard not to think about Will's sweet, open face. "Whose authority?"

 

"Your father's." 

 

Gideon inhaled sharply, his mind churning. What does he know?! He'd suppressed the question since Will said he'd never met Ben Adler, but it very quickly rose up to dig its teeth back into Gideon's heart.

 

"I think he could tell you very much that might be of interest to you, actually. I know you share your father's technical abilities, but I'd wager that not even he could figure out how Robinson controls his robot. But you..."

 

Gideon had wondered the same thing, but… "I don't think he controls it," he said, uncertain. He'd seen Robot tease Will, do things independently from him, and Will had told him Robot had interests completely separate from his own…

 

"Well, you're the right man to work it out, aren't you?"

 

"Um, yeah. Definitely." Gideon found himself nodding, though he wasn't entirely sure what he was agreeing to. He was usually quick on his mental feet, but this conversation had him more than a little confused, scrambling to find the meaning in Hastings' words...

 

Hastings glanced at his comm and slapped himself on the forehead. "Oh, damn, I forgot I had a committee meeting this evening. Gideon, I am terribly sorry for this, but I need to go." 

 

"Um?" Gideon looked at the sake in its warm bath. 

 

"Keep it. Tell your mother that it's from you. You'll make her day." Hastings started for the door, Gideon trailing behind him. "I'll come by another time. Remember what I said: you're a good friend to put yourself out for Robinson, and I've got your back. I'll keep looking out for you. Sometimes I blame myself for what happened--" He cut himself off, a suspicious gloss to his eyes. Then he gave his head a rough shake.  "Well, you'll understand." Once he'd tugged his shoes on, he stood and pulled Gideon in for a quick hug. "Goodnight, Gideon. Wonderful to see you."

 

"G'night, Mr Hastings," Gideon murmured as Hastings hurried out. 

 

The door had just closed when the bathroom opened, releasing a puff of steam and Nida Adler toweling her hair. 

 

"Who was it?" Nida asked.

 

"It…" Gideon trailed off, remembering what Hastings had suggested. "I ordered some sake for you," he said, nodding at the pot on the stove. "You had a shit weekend."

 

"Oh." She softened, a rare smile gentling the hard lines around her mouth. "Thanks, Gid. My favourite."

 

"Yeah. Your favourite."

Chapter Text

15

 

"Thank fuck it's Friday," Gideon gusted as he dropped into the chair across from Will.

 

Will nodded, his gaze never leaving the stream of kids entering and leaving the cafeteria. Did one of them know where Scarecrow was? He'd been on edge all week, waiting to hear that someone was missing or injured, but… nothing. As far as he could tell, everyone was present and accounted for, all limbs were still attached to their bodies, and the only electrical burns seemed to be on the kids in his machine class. So now he was hunting for… something. He didn't know what, but surely there would be some sign, some way to tell if one of the other kids out there had encountered Scarecrow.

 

"Busy this weekend?" Gideon asked after a moment. 

 

"I'm grounded," Will reminded him absently, though "under house arrest" was definitely more accurate. 

 

"Oh, yeah. That's what you get for stealing a vehicle with the help of your hot and intelligent accomplice." Will could hear Gideon's smile, even with his attention on the teeming student body. "We could play something?"

 

"No games, no videos that aren't educational." Will finally pulled his gaze away from the cafeteria doors and offered a shrug. "Grounded."

 

"Harsh, mate." Gideon leaned back in his chair, fingers laced behind his head, amber eyes focusing somewhere near the ceiling. "If you get bored, give me a call. I'll watch or play something and tell you what's happening. Or we can just, I don’t know, talk. Or whatever."

 

"Then you'll be bored, too." Will couldn't imagine why Gideon would want to just talk with him instead of doing something more fun. “Robot’ll be around, anyway,” he added, a mix of anticipation and apprehension rolling in his gut. After the previous weekend, could he be trusted around Robot? “I’ll probably be allowed to hang out with him. Probably."

 

"Yeah, right. Of course.” Gideon shifted around, knees bouncing, alternating between rubbing his bare arms, tousling his black hair, and fidgeting with his piercings. Will could sense something bothering him, but there was too much going on in his own head for him to ask what was going on in his friend’s. "Come on,” Gideon finally said, slapping his knees and bolting to his feet, “you getting something to eat?"

 

"Yeah." 

 

They meandered to the lengthening queue to collect their lunches, Will still hunting the crowds for signs of injury. He found only his peers, most of them energetic and in high spirits with the impending weekend. Here and there, he reflexively answered nods from other students or lifted a hand in a brief wave. Despite the chaos of the past week, at least his school life was going well. No one seemed to know that he'd driven a wedge between human- and robot-kind. If anything, throughout the week he'd only heard about how awesome Robot had been at the quarry, how the other kids wanted him to come around more, and more of the bottomless curiosity about Robot’s origin and how he worked.

 

They joined the queue and a friend of Gideon’s sidled up behind him. She smiled between them, a fond gleam in her eye, and the expression sharpened into a smirk when she turned to Gideon. “Going well, I see,” she said as though answering her own unspoken question. She twirled a lock of hair around a finger and switched back to Will. “You gonna come cheer Gid on again this weekend? He rocked it last time.”

 

“Rocked it,” Gideon repeated, elbowing Will in the ribs. “Like a boss.”

 

“He shows off when you’re around,” his friend continued. “In case you haven’t noticed.”

 

“Shut it,” Gideon hissed.

 

“Um.” Will blinked, not sure what she meant by that. “I, um, I can’t this weekend. And probably not until I’m eighteen. Sorry?”

 

“Aw, Gid, why can’t you keep him around? You’re doing something wrong, my man.”

 

“Eh, it’s a long story, mate.” Gideon glared at a nearby fern, his ears reddening. “I’d appreciate it very much if you’d screw off, though. You know. As a personal favour. Screw off.”

 

She laughed brightly. “You wish. I don’t get to see you embarrassed very often. It’s so cute!”

 

“Why are you embarrassed?” Will asked, leaning forward to catch Gideon’s eye. 

 

“I’m not!” Forcing a laugh, Gideon grinned widely at Will even as he shoved his friend’s shoulder. “Not at all.” Then, in a hiss, he added, “Bugger off!”

 

Confused, but entertained by Gideon’s dismay, Will laughed along with them. If nothing else, Gideon was proving himself to be quite distracting from his endless worries.

 

Then something shoved him in the small of the back.

 

He stumbled against Gideon’s chest, caught himself on one bare bicep, and whirled around to see what had hit him.

 

“Why didn’t I think of doing that?” muttered Gideon’s friend.

 

“Shut it,” Gideon snapped, and Will had a vague awareness of hands settling lightly on his arms.

 

But he was too preoccupied with the sight of who had run into him to really notice what Gideon was doing.

 

There behind him, shaking with tension, stood Sajan. He glared from red-rimmed eyes, his fists balled at his sides, his narrow shoulders heaving. He looked like he’d been running.

 

“Sajan?” Will asked, concerned for his young friend. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

 

“Tell me it’s not true,” Sajan demanded thickly.

 

“What?” Will looked to Gideon and his friend, but they shrugged, as confused as him. “Tell you what’s not true?”

 

“That you tried to kill Robot!” Sajan spat. 

 

Will’s heart dropped, draining the blood from his face. His pulse beat weakly through a hiss of white noise. He stared at Sajan’s enraged and betrayed expression, unable to swallow away the sudden dryness of his mouth and throat. He only realized he’d tried to back away when his shoulder blades hit the solid warmth of Gideon’s chest.

 

“What?” he rasped.

 

“You forced him to walk off a cliff!” Sajan must have seen the truth in Will’s stricken expression; his dark eyes began to well up and he pointed with a shaking hand. “He trusted you!”

 

Sajan could have been speaking the words that Will often thought at his own eleven-year old self. How could you? He trusted you. 

 

The memory of leading Robot to that cliff, ordering him to take his own life, and then watching him fall apart--it haunted him. Worse than the sight of Ben Adler disappearing into the storm. Worse than being attacked by robots or humans. It was his own ability and willingness to end the life of another. Someone who cared for him. Someone who trusted him.

 

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled numbly, pushing against Gideon in an effort to get away. “It was--” He choked on the words, knowing that no excuse could make up for his actions. He’d been pressured to do it, but that was not an acceptable reason. He’d been a kid, but any other kid would have known better, would have stood up for his friend. There were no excuses, only his pitiful remorse. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Shit, Will, you okay? What the hell is he talking about?” Gideon gripped his arms and tried to turn him.

 

Will shook him off with a mumbled “Don’t.” He looked anywhere but at Sajan’s wide-eyed and distressed expression and Gideon’s Ben Adler-esque features. He had to get out of there. 

 

“You didn’t read about it?” came another smug and hateful voice. “Robinson here has a habit of murdering his friends. You might want to ditch him before he gets you, too.” And Rich emerged from the crowds, a figure from Will’s nightmares. He still wore a medical eye patch over one eye and a few small scabs dotted his face. He held up his arm and pointed to his comm. “Great book, Robinson.”

 

No… Penny had put that scene in her book? No. No, she couldn’t have. It wasn’t supposed to be in the book. It was supposed to be just… glossed over. Will had barely been able to talk about it when Penny was writing her first draft. She knew how painful it was for him.

 

But they knew, he realized as he looked around at the nearby crowds. He saw their eyes on him, saw them lean to murmur to each other, saw them accessing their comms.

 

Everyone knew. They knew the most horrible thing he had ever done.

 

Will ,” Gideon hissed, shaking his shoulders. “Talk to me, mate.”

 

“No!” Will stumbled away, ignoring the muttered curse of whoever he bumped into. “No. It. It’s true.” He forced himself to look at Gideon and regretted it instantly when black memories licked at his mind. He saw Ben’s regret and felt it keenly as his own. And, worse still, he felt that he had far more to regret than Ben or Hastings. They had enslaved Scarecrow, but they hadn’t earned his trust and then betrayed him. They hadn’t killed him. “It’s true,” he muttered again. “I didn’t want to, but I--” He almost said I had to , but that wasn’t right. He hadn’t had to. He just hadn’t had the strength to fight the fear of the other colonists and his own family. He’d been weak. A coward. “I’m sorry,” he said again, uselessly. Sajan was still on the verge of tears and Rich’s grin was growing like the black, black pit opening in Will’s stomach. Nothing Will said could change any of it. He couldn’t take back what he’d done.

 

So he fled. Head down, he hurried out of the cafeteria, laughter booming behind him.

 

“Will!” Gideon caught him just outside the school doors with a rough grasp on his jacket collar. “Come on, mate. What the fuck is going on?”

 

“Let me go!” Will snapped, levelling a scowl on Gideon’s frowning face. He tried to rip himself out of Gideon’s hand, but couldn’t shake it off. 

 

“Not until I get an answer.” Gideon’s expression softened and his grip shifted to rub Will’s shoulder. “You can tell me anything. What happened?”

 

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Will glared into the orange dusk. “I… I made a mistake. A long time ago. You can read the damn book if you want to.”

 

“I’d rather you tell me.”

 

Will couldn’t look at him. He glared at the cement under his shoes. “Maybe another time," he lied, knowing full well that it was another thing he could never talk about. "I have to get out of here." He tugged away again. 

 

"Yeah, okay. You want some company?"

 

"No. It's okay. I just need to be alone."

 

Gideon's grip on his shoulder tightened. For a moment, Will worried that Gideon wouldn't let him go. He didn't know what he would do if Gideon forced the issue. Get into a fight? Turn against another friend who had been nothing but supportive? 

 

"Sure," Gideon finally said. "Whatever. I guess I'll read the book." He gave Will a little shove toward the school gates. "Here's your bag," he added, dropping it on the pavement between them. 

 

"Th-thanks." Will fumbled it up onto his shoulder, painfully aware that he'd done something to annoy Gideon and that there was nothing he could do about it. "Sorry," he mumbled, before striding away. 

 

**

 

“Will?” Maureen called softly and knocked on his bedroom door. “You awake?”

 

Will scrunched himself tighter and pulled his blanket over his head, as though he was five and Maureen was the boogeyman. Maybe if she thought he was asleep, he could get out of this nightmare.

 

“Another migraine?” came Judy’s muffled voice. “This is getting ridiculous. If Dr Choi doesn’t get him in for an MRI, I will.”

 

“I don’t know,” Maureen murmured in response. “With everything that’s been going on, maybe it’s stress?”

 

“Do you know how much radiation we were exposed to in the last few years? And he’s the youngest of us all. It could be a--”

 

Please, Judy,” Maureen interrupted. “I know what it could be. I’m not trying to ignore the problem, I just… Everytime I bring it up, he gets so upset… But you’re right. This can’t go on…”

 

Will added “telling Mom that I have a migraine to get out of school for the afternoon” to his long list of regrets.

 

Their voices faded as they walked away and Will let himself relax--physically, at least. His mind continued to contort itself in distress.

 

That night was the party for Penny’s book release. It was supposed to be a celebration. Vijay and Don and Penny’s editor would be there. There was going to be real food. But all Will felt was anger--at himself, at the people who’d pressured his eleven-year old self, and at Penny for including the horrible event in her book--and a deepening sense of pure, bleak depression. He could barely move from the crushing weight of guilt and self-hatred.

 

If Will was lucky, they would just leave him alone in his room. He didn’t think he could manage a single word to someone, much less a conversation.

 

Something tickled the back of his brain, like the mental version of a growing sneeze. 

 

Robot

 

Will tried to ignore it, but he could feel Robot’s approach like the warmth of a sunrise. Flickers of alien thoughts whispered between his own. Brief sensations ghosted across his perception. Usually he’d barely notice the intrusion, but in that dark place with nothing but shadows and a blanket around him, Will felt it strongly. He flinched away. 

 

He didn’t deserve that connection. Not after every terrible way he’d used and abused it.

 

???

 

Robot sent a wordless status request, but Will couldn’t answer. 

 

Next he received an awareness of increasing proximity--not quite a visual map, but knowledge of distance and direction and movement.

 

oxxxxxxxxo

oxxxxxxxo

oxxxxxxo

oxxxxxo

oxxxxo

oxxxo

 

Accompanying the knowledge, he saw fern leaves glowing as they brushed against the Chariot’s windows, and then the flash of green as they passed the colony perimeter. 

 

He should have been thrilled to see so much from Robot. He should have been excited to know Robot was on his way home. But he dreaded it.

 

Will buried his head again, but the fabric couldn’t stop Robot’s ongoing thoughts and messages. 

 

A few minutes later, he heard the front door open and heard John and Robot enter. He heard the shouts of welcome and quiet music through two sets of senses. Will cringed, trying to block it out.

 

???

oxo

 

He could feel each heavy step as Robot passed through the living room, ignoring the greetings from the Robinsons and their guests. He felt the shiver as Robot thudded past the kitchen and entered the back hall.

 

???

oo

 

The floor creaked outside his door. Will hid himself, curling into a painfully tight and shaking ball.

 

“Will Robinson,” came Robot’s voice, accompanied by a rush of enjoyment. He liked to speak Will’s designation in the humans’ primitive verbal language--it hadn’t been easy to force his servos to make a noise approximating the vibration of a human’s larynx, so it was a source of pride. 

 

Will wasn’t used to feeling so much from Robot. Somehow their connection had grown stronger, perhaps from their experiences the previous weekend.

 

The knowledge normally would have fascinated him, but he couldn’t help but feel that he would only hurt Robot again if they continued this close connection. After everything he’d done, he was only afraid. Afraid of what else he could do to hurt him.

 

He didn’t know if he should beg Robot to leave or beg him to stay. For all that Will feared his own influence over Robot, he also craved Robot’s presence so strongly that it made his eyes burn and throat tighten. Robot was the only one he could trust. His best friend. His protector. His mystery. 

 

“Will isn’t feeling well,” Maureen said, probably noticing Robot lurking in the hall. “He’s sleeping.”

 

“No,” Robot countered. 

 

“He’s not?” Will could hear the smile in her voice.

 

“No.”

 

“Well, if he wasn’t asleep, he’d be out here, right?”

 

Will could sense Robot mulling this over. He’d realized over the past weeks that Robot, and possibly others of his species, didn’t predict other creatures’ behaviours the way that humans did. He could run through simulations based on experience and data, but if he didn’t already know how something or someone would act, he had difficulty extrapolating. A difference in their empathy, Will thought of it. 

 

He could almost hear Robot ask himself, If Will was awake and functional, would he be in the living room? And then run through every situation since they’d arrived in the colony where Will had been awake and remained in his room. 

 

The conclusion: No. Will was often awake in his room when studying, working, reading, dressing, or doing those things which Robot found most fascinating. Maureen Robinson was incorrect.

 

“No,” he said again.

 

“Do you want to join us at the party?”

 

“No.”

 

“Penny’s book is about you, too, you know. You’re a part of this family.”

 

“Will Robinson.”

 

Maureen sighed. “He came home early and he's been in bed ever since. He’s resting.”

 

“Will Robinson.” 

 

“Okay, okay. You don’t want to party without him. That’s fine. Just don’t wake him up, okay?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Okay. Come join us when you’re ready.”

 

Maureen’s much quieter steps retreated. Will, listening hard, hoped that Robot would get the hint and leave as well. 

 

“Will Robinson.” The gentle scratch of six claws on the door followed the low, churring call.

 

Will shuddered. Go away.

 

“Will Robinson.” 

 

With a shaky, pained breath, Will unfurled. Slowly, achingly, he forced himself to rise, still wrapped in his blanket. He tottered through the darkness, stubbed his toe badly enough to mutter a curse, and arrived at his door. He triggered it to open and squinted as the hall light flooded the room. Good thing he didn’t actually have a migraine.

 

Robot’s huge frame shifted, blocking the light. His face glowed gently, stars pulsing and disappearing and swirling. He reached in and slowly gathered Will’s stiff form to his chest.

 

Will fought the urge to relax into Robot’s embrace. Instead, he tried to lean away until his weight braced against Robot's hands.

 

“I missed you, too,” he mumbled at the floor. “But, Robot, I don’t know if…" He trailed off, not quite knowing what to say. "I don't know if you should… be here. With me, I mean." He didn't want Robot to think he wasn't welcome in the Robinson house, so hurriedly stammered a clarification. "I don't think I… I don't think I'm good. For you. To. To be around. I don't think I'm good for you."

 

The words tore out of his chest like he was ripping out his own heart. He dragged his blurring gaze up to meet Robot's pensive nebulae. 

 

"I'm sorry. For everything I've done. And. And made you do. I’m sorry." He let a shaking hand emerge from his cocoon and ineffectually pushed Robot's cool, molded chest plates. "You should just go."

 

Robot's head tilted. Will could sense that he made the motion intentionally--a human mannerism to communicate confusion. Then his grip slid from Will's back and shoulders to his front, and his claws tugged gently at the blanket. 

 

He heard Will's heart rate increase and felt the little electrical pulse of the small, but important, muscle. He experienced the second hand tremble of organic mechanisms as though they belonged to him. The sensation of physiological arousal was so enjoyable that Robot didn't hesitate. He pushed a stream of information across his link to Will that he knew would trigger the desired reaction: a memory of the video Will had reacted to, along with the sensations that he'd coded when Will had shared his self-stimulation.

 

Will's eyes widened and pupils dilated to 214% of their baseline diameter. Blood flow to the subdermal capillaries in his face increased. Robot experienced the sensation of nerves tingling, blood vessels dilating, muscles contracting. This close, with the signal so strong, Will was an astoundingly acute sensory array.

 

Robot wanted to know all that he could feel. 

 

"Oh no," Will muttered. "What's wrong with me?" His posture tightened and he backed away. His hair fell across his downturned eyes, but Robot could pick out the shifting angles of his brows, mouth, and jaw that indicated distress. "God, Robot, I… I don't know why this is happening to me. I'm so sorry. You're just saying hi and I…"

 

Robot followed him into the small room, pleased by where this was going. Will didn't seem happy, but his emotions tended to fluctuate wildly at the best of times, seemingly with each of his irregular heartbeats. Based on past experience, he would be relieved within moments and Robot would be right there with him, humming with echoes of his satisfaction. 

 

But instead of sinking down onto his recharge station, Will stopped and held up a hand. A sharp panic signal rang across Robot's sensors, freezing him mid-step. "No, wait," he protested. "Don't come any closer. I'm not good for you. Didn't you hear me? There's something wrong with me."

 

"No," Robot responded. Will's subjective comprehension of "good" was convoluted at best, and not based in physical reality. And there was certainly nothing wrong with him. Quite the opposite--his performance was functionally superior compared to many other humans. Therefore, his conclusions were false and Robot would not follow the accompanying directive.

 

He advanced another step, fully intending on unwrapping Will from his protective thermal layer so they could repeat what they had done the last time they were alone together. Over the past days, Robot had replayed his memories often when alone, but coding new ones would be far better. He had also downloaded written, visual, and auditory communications that provided additional information on other activities that could elicit similar sensations from a human body. He wanted to try them.

 

“Robot,” Will whined, shuffling backward, clutching his protective layer more tightly. "Stay away from me. It isn't right for me to feel this way. It isn't fair to you. I have to… to make it stop before we can hang out again. You should go back to the party."

 

"No," Robot said again, to all of Will's rapid, breathless, and incorrect assertions. Robot didn't fully understand what Will meant by "right" and "fair", but he seemed to think Robot should leave. Without a reason to do so, Robot would not comply.

 

Will bumped into his recharge station, wobbled, and then teetered along the edge until he met the back wall. There he remained, contained by the fragile resin and gypsum, wide eyes watching Robot approach. For the moment, at least, he did not speak, but his nonverbal communication continued. 

 

His tongue--a deceptively simple appendage that was more important than it seemed, based on his downloaded information on human behaviours--moistened his lips. A movement that communicated nervousness. His eyes, the pupil-to-iris ratio still indicating arousal, jumped erratically over Robot's chassis and central processor. A constant flow of information passed between them, allowing Robot to sense the struggle between Will's physical wetware and codes.

 

How endlessly curious! Humans--or so Robot assumed based on Will's configuration--were made up of multiple quasi-distinct structures in near constant conflict with each other. After downloading an archive of human self-observations, Robot understood those structures as:

  • Thoughts 
  • Emotions
  • Social codes
  • Wetware

 

Will's thoughts had a general authority, but could be overridden by particularly strong commands from the others, depending on several interrelated and complex variables. The configuration was similar to one of Robot's species when an underlying process becomes corrupted and begins disrupting the entire hierarchy. Otherwise, Robot had no conflicting codes.

 

At least, not unless one of Will's signals conflicted with Robot's intentions, knowledge, or actions. But Robot was becoming more efficient at resolving those discrepancies as he increased his understanding of Will's configuration. He could sort through Will's input with greater accuracy now: determining which impulses originated from which source. 

 

At that moment, Will's thoughts were verbally directing Robot to increase distance, his emotions were a mix of negative sensations, and his social code was an obscure tangle. But his wetware… his wetware clearly and strongly signalled Robot to continue.

 

So Robot closed the space between them, careful of where he placed his feet. Will looked up at him, breathing heavily and shaking his head.

 

Slowly, gently, Robot lifted a hand to brush his claws through the fine, straight strands of Will's hair. So delicate! So… non-functional. 

 

Human hair reminded him of "art"--a form of symbolic communication with little physical function, but designed to elicit emotional and thought responses outside of the typical transfer of information. Will's hair elicited a response in Robot of fascination and enjoyment, enhanced by the reaction of Will's wetware.

 

"Robot," Will whispered, leaning his head against Robot's hand and squeezing his eyes shut. The sensation of the fragile curve of his skull and warmth of his skin against Robot's digits reinforced his need to protect the small human. "I know you're just trying to make me feel better, but… but something's getting mixed up somewhere. Please." His voice became tight and throaty with anguish. "Please. You have to leave before I…"

 

The strength of his emotions and thoughts were beginning to override the signals Robot was receiving from his wetware. Although Robot knew the information that formed the basis of Will's decision was false, and he disagreed with the conclusion, he could sense the negative emotions increasing to distress.

 

He reluctantly submitted to Will's request, backing away and ceasing the signals to trigger an arousal response. 

 

This did not immediately result in an abatement of the state of Will's wetware. He opened his eyes and watched Robot backpedal, his shoulders sagging. His emotions fluctuated again, difficult for Robot to follow. Disappointment. Want. Regret. Sadness. Fear. Need. Anger.

 

Beneath it all, though, remained the steady warmth of his affection--that powerful, constant emotion that fed Robot in a way that electrical currents could not. An emotion that Robot had never known that he could want. So long as that remained, Robot could abide with Will’s sometimes frustrating directives.

 

Why should a superior organism require the affection of an inferior one? Another curiosity that Robot puzzled over. Regardless of the reason, he would nurture and protect that affection and its source without hesitation. 

 

Even if it meant moving away and staying away when Will covered his face and slid to the floor.

 

"I'm so sorry," he whispered.

 

Something was wrong with Will Robinson, Robot was beginning to observe. Though physically sound, he seemed to have suffered some form of injury.

 

This was outside of Robot's experience and ability to repair. With a last, lingering scan to note Will's elevated heart rate and respiration and the stress-related organic chemicals soaking into the air, Robot turned to seek assistance. 

 

The Robinson family and their guests sat and stood around their main living space, consuming liquid and solid sustenance. Robot picked out Judy Robinson, engaged in a conversation with Penny Robinson and Don West. She appeared to be in functional condition; her refueling could be delayed.

 

He stepped toward the trio. When they looked up at him, he registered surprise in the movements and angles of their facial features, and then a positive response. 

 

"Hey, Double-R," Don greeted first, lifting a vessel of liquid. "Did you read Penny's book yet?"

 

"Yes," Robot said. He had downloaded the content the moment it had been released onto the network. 

 

"Did anyone tally the number of times we each saved the day? I need to know how many I need to catch up…"

 

Robot considered the man and shook his processor slowly back and forth in a human gesture of negation. Don would never catch up.

 

"Will Robinson," he said, returning to his current directive. He shifted his processor to Judy and swept an arm toward the back hall.

 

Judy's smile immediately fell. "Will? Is he okay?"

 

Robot couldn't answer that. He moved his arm a little further.

 

"Okay. Here, can you hold this?" Judy passed her vessel to Don and hurried away. 

 

"Hold mine, too, " Penny said, following her sister.

 

"Uh, yeah, no problem," Don muttered, struggling not to drop the three vessels.

 

Robot thudded after the Robinson sisters, hoping that they would fix their brother. 

 

"Hey, Will," Judy's voice carried quietly from the open bedroom door. "You okay? Robot said you might need some help?"

 

"What?" Will snapped. "N-no, I'm fine."

 

"Your head's feeling better?"

 

"Yeah. It… I don't think it was a migraine after all. I was just tired."

 

Robot reached the door, where Penny leaned against the lintel. They looked in as Will, now seated on the edge of his recharge station, blanket loosely draped around his shoulders, scowled at Judy as she sat beside him. 

 

"I'm fine," he said again. "Really. I don't know why Robot got you. Maybe you misunderstood what he wanted." His gaze moved to Robot and his thoughts muddled with confusion. Then he noticed Penny and his face spasmed. "I just need to be alone," he choked, sounding strangled. 

 

"You should at least come and get something to eat," Judy said quietly. "If you haven't had anything yet, that could explain why you're so tired."

 

"I'm not really hungry." Will's attention dragged away from Penny, hit on Robot again, and then dropped to his hands, clenching together in his lap. Waves of pain rolled off him, making Robot wonder if he had some kind of illness. Were microbial pathogens colonizing his body? "Please just go."

 

"Will--"

 

"Leave him be," Penny said, arms folding. "He's not a kid anymore. If he wants to hide in his room, that's his business."

 

"I'm not hiding," Will muttered.

 

"Then what are you doing?" Judy asked. She placed a hand on his brow and he jerked away. "You feel warm."

 

"I'm fine ." His voice cracked. He stared at Judy for a heartbeat and then shot to his feet. "Fine. I'll come get something to eat. Then will you leave me alone?"

 

"For now. But, Will, I wanted to talk to you about--"

 

"I don't want to talk." He stepped away from her and froze in the middle of his room, his conflicted stare bouncing between Robot and Penny by the door. "Excuse me," he said tightly.

 

"Yeah, sure." Penny backed away into the hall. 

 

Robot remained, aware that Will could easily slide past him.

 

But Will just stared, until Judy gave him a little push. "Come on," she urged. 

 

Will slowly edged into the narrow space between Robot and the door frame. His eyes squeezed shut and he blew out a slow breath as he side-stepped, his undercarriage carefully held away from Robot’s chassis. His wetware was still in a state of partial arousal, though Robot had not emitted a triggering signal in some time. It seemed to be reacting on its own.

 

Once free of the room, Will followed Penny into the kitchen, Robot and Judy only steps behind.

 

“We’ve already gotten tons of reviews,” Penny’s editor was saying to Maureen Robinson on the other side of the kitchen counter. “It’s really a story about us all, just told from one point of view. So many people are commenting on the scenes they remember, and we’re all grateful that someone has recorded it all.”

 

“Speak for yourself,” Will muttered, barely audible as he picked over a platter of small sustenance items.

 

“Hey,” Penny said. “What does that mean?” She reclaimed her vessel of liquid and leaned against the counter, eyes narrowed as she stared at her brother. “What is up with you? This book is our story. We worked so hard to get here, and we worked together to write it. And now it’s out! It’s published. We made it! Aren’t you happy?”

 

Will bowed over the platter, his hair obscuring his face. A red flush crawled up the back of his neck from his shirt collar. He clawed at the counter, clenched his hands into fists, and finally lifted his head to stare wide-eyed at Penny.

 

“No,” he seethed. “No I am not happy. You lied to me, Penny.”

 

“Excuse me?” Penny blinked. “I may have told a sisterly lie here and there over the years, but nothing to do with the book.”

 

“You promised me. You promised me that you wouldn’t put it in!” 

 

Penny straightened, a frown beetling her red brows. “Put what in?”

 

Will, breathing heavily, hands clasping and releasing, looked to Robot. “When… when I…”

 

“When you killed Robot?” Penny asked dryly.

 

“Yes! Why , Penny?” The rest of the Robinsons had gone quiet. Will’s voice cracked loudly through the house as he shouted, “Why did you put that in?”

 

Her arms crossed, Penny shrugged. "My editor told me to put it in. And I agreed."

 

"You weren't supposed to have it in there!"

 

"It wouldn't make any sense otherwise. Just all of a sudden Robot wasn't with us anymore? And then he's on Smith's side?"

 

"Yes! Or you could've made something up. Anything!" Will swung out an arm, unintentionally knocking a vessel onto the floor.

 

"Why? What's wrong with it?"

 

"Everyone hates me now. They're calling me a murderer."

 

"What? That's stupid. You were just a kid."

 

"It doesn't matter how old I was. I still did it and now everyone knows and they think I'm a monster, all because of your stupid book!"

 

“Will,” Maureen chided from the living room.

 

"Why didn't you say something?” Penny asked. Like Will, she’d begun to redden, indicating her own anger. “I told you to go over the revisions. You didn't even look at it!"

 

"I didn't think you'd make such a big change! What were you thinking? What about Robot? How do you think he feels, having that scene in there?"

 

"He said it was fine."

 

"Wh-what?" Will looked to Robot again, his expression registering shock, and Robot nodded his agreement.

 

"Yeah. I asked him about it. He read it. He said it was okay."

 

"But…"

 

"It's not all about you, Will,” Penny said tightly. “Don't you think this will help him? If everyone knows he has the capacity for forgiveness, isn't that a good thing?"

 

"Yeah, but…"

 

More gently, Penny continued, "And most people will understand why you did it. I made sure to include all the pressure you were under. This doesn't exactly show Mom and Dad and the other colonists in the best light, either. It's a painful scene for all of us. But I think it's important for everyone to see Robot's growth. And yours. I mean, look at you now--fighting for Robot's rights and helping to ensure there is peace between us all so we can continue using the Rift drive. Because of you, millions more people will be saved, and everyone will see that."

 

Will reacted to each word like he was being physically struck; flinching, eyes wide and lined in red, his skin grey. Robot stepped closer and curled a gentle arm around his narrow shoulders--a useless gesture, he knew, when his arm alone could not keep those words from hurting him, but he had to try.

 

I want to protect you from this , his processes silently murmured, as they so often did when Will experienced distress due to words, thoughts, and obscure social codes. I want to fight this battle for you, but there are no enemies. 

 

Unexpectedly, Will jumped away from him. "Don't," he choked. 

 

Robot lowered his empty arm and tilted his processor to elicit an explanation. 

 

"Will, what's wrong now?" Penny sighed. "You've been moody and weird since we got here. What's going on with you?"

 

"It's puberty," John commented, echoed by Don's snicker and Maureen's stern, "John."

 

Will gaze bounced from human to human in the kitchen and living room. "You don't… it's not… I just. I need to be alone."

 

"Will," Maureen called softly. "It's okay. We've all made mistakes. We regret them. I… regret all of the choices I made that… that might have hurt you. But you shouldn't just cut everyone out. We're a family. We love each other and support each other, no matter what."

 

Will's head shook back and forth. "It's okay," he whispered hoarsely. "I'm fine. I just need to rest. Good night."

 

He squirmed past Penny and Robot, made it into the corridor, and hurried to his bedroom. 

 

The other Robinsons exchanged glances. Vijay shifted on his feet. Penny’s editor cleared her throat. The only sound was the quiet music and seven sets of tense breathing, hearts, and gastric gurgling. 

 

"Robot," Maureen finally said, turning to him. "Do you know what's going on with him?"

 

Robot scanned his memories of Will from the past several weeks, from their sweet moments alone, to the panic that seemed to strike Will from nowhere, to their exploration, to moments like these where Will was fighting to hide something from the others. 

 

He shrugged. "Private."

 

Don chuckled. 

 

"Robot," Maureen insisted, "if there's something wrong, you have to tell us. He could be sick or… or hurt."

 

"Private," Robot said again. He'd already told Judy when he thought Will needed attention, and that had not been effective. Will's condition had worsened. Next time, he would wait for an increased probability of a physical ailment before summoning aid.

 

Before Maureen could try again, Robot strode away. He followed Will's path to his door and considered breaking through the flimsy material to reclaim his position at Will's side. After weighing the variables, he decided to simply put his back to it and stand watch as he had done so many times before on the Jupiter and Fortuna.

 

He listened to Will's muffled heartbeat and ragged breathing and accepted the tumultuous input of thoughts and emotions. 

 

"Hey, big guy," John said sometime later, after Judy, Don, Vijay, Penny, and Penny's editor had exited the house. He stood before Robot, rubbing his face in a gesture of discomfort. "You gonna go home?"

 

"No."

 

"You really don't need to guard his door here. There's nothing to guard against."

 

Robot ignored him and his erroneous statements.

 

"Look, Robot, at some point tonight someone's going to get up for a piss and hurt themselves running into you. It's probably going to be me."

 

Robot finally regarded him directly. He increased the photon emission from his processor until annoyed orange light filled the corridor.

 

John threw up an arm to protect his eyes and backed away. "Great," he muttered. "Now we have a frigging night light."

 

When he'd gone, Robot resumed his normal emission levels. He settled back into the quiet. As the humans' dormant period passed, Robot performed internal maintenance, sorting his memories, deleting unnecessary information, cleaning his codes, and resolving discrepancies. Behind him, Will recharged restlessly. Even in dormancy, he continued to be disturbed by emotional spikes--fear and anxiety--and distressed thoughts. Robot emitted a low frequency signal toward Will's dormant mind to encourage his rest. 

 

Gradually, Will's fluctuations evened out and he slept peacefully. 

 

What could Robot do to fix his human? The cause of Will’s distress was not obvious. From the minimal data Robot had received, Will thought frequently of Robot, Scarecrow, and events that had occurred in the past. Thoughts of Robot and Scarecrow caused equal amounts of contentment and concern, but not distress. However, the past events caused a great deal of pain.

 

Such a review of memories would not cause injury to Robot, but it seemed to hurt Will somehow. Perhaps this was a function of how humans encoded their memories--where recollection of a painful event caused the same pain as the event itself. Then why would Will continue reviewing those events? 

 

Robot accessed the network and began pulling information regarding human neurological anatomy and function. 

 

After several terabytes of information passed through his processors, he concluded that some memories were essentially automatic--if Will was reminded of a painful event by an external stimulus, he would remember it and experience pain. 

 

There were methods of mitigating this process and the resulting discomfort, but they were beyond Robot’s current ability. He developed a sub-directive to figure out how to resolve this problem.

 

Until he found a suitable solution, he would increase positive stimulus. If Will enjoyed his thoughts of Robot and Scarecrow, Robot would provide him with more Robot and Scarecrow.

 

Though it was likely a useless attempt, Robot opened his broadband communications and sent out a signal that only a member of his species would pick up, requesting his absent friend to return to the Robinsons.

 

The answer from Scarecrow, bounced off one of Proxima’s satellites in order to conceal his location, was a firm “No.”

 

As Will would say: “Fine.” Robot would find another way to give Will more Robot and Scarecrow stimulus.

 

So thinking, Robot shifted from his position and headed for the main door.

 

John, just about to step out of the washroom, startled back with a sleepy curse as Robot thudded past him.

 

“Good night to you, too,” he muttered.

Chapter Text

Sixteen

 

Will woke feeling strangely refreshed. More than he should, really, considering the events of the previous day. At some point during the night, his bad dreams had relaxed their hold on him and he’d been able to sink into some restorative sleep.

 

He dragged himself out of his room and found Penny and Judy’s rooms open and empty, and his parents’ closed. Penny and Judy must have slept somewhere else. Interesting.

 

After a visit to the washroom, he continued to the kitchen, grateful to find it empty. When he saw the pile of dirty food trays, he winced at the reminder of his shouting match with Penny. What had he been thinking? She’d made some good points about including that scene in her book--especially about Robot. Again, Will had been so caught up in his own issues that he hadn’t even thought about Robot. If people read about how he had still helped his friends--and thus, humanity--despite his mistreatment, would they be more welcoming to him and his species? Couldn’t Will just swallow the sacrifice of his own reputation in order to support Robot?

 

He could.

 

But it still cut. Deeply. It wasn’t the opinions of his peers that made it hurt, though. It was the way he replayed that day over and over in his head, begging himself not to do it, begging Robot not to obey him. 

 

“Shit,” he sighed, slouching back against a counter and rubbing his face. The word basically summed up how he felt about pretty much everything. 

 

Before he could sink into complete depression, he forced himself to dig leftovers out of the refrigerator. He sat at the table and stared at nothing as he methodically devoured two dozen tiny appetizers.

 

As he finished, a creak in the hallway alerted him that he was no longer alone. He lifted his head to nod at his mother as she emerged.

 

“Hey, Will,” she greeted with a tired smile. “How are you feeling?”

 

“Fine,” he answered, muffled by the mouthful he’d been chewing.

 

“Yeah?” She looked him over. “You do seem better.”

 

Another creak and John appeared behind her in his boxers and a t-shirt. “Good to hear,” he rasped, yawning. “I’ve got a nice, long list of chores for you to work on this weekend.”

 

Will slumped lower. Right. You do one good deed, and your life turns into weeks of homework, documentaries, and the worst tasks your parents can think up.

 

This was going to be the Water Planet all over again.

 

"It'll be fun," John said as he dug into the coffee cupboard. "We're going to get so. Much. Done."

 

"Great," Will sighed.

 

After a quick shower, Will stepped outside with John, grimacing at the dark grey, cloudy sky and black plantlife and beige buildings. The grim ambience suited his gloomy mood perfectly.

 

When they hit the sidewalk, John paused and turned to regard Will directly. “I, uh, I think Robot should sit this one out,” he said, his mouth and eyes tightening warily. 

 

Will knew why. He was expecting a fight.

 

Instead, Will forced a shrug and shoved his fists into his jacket pockets. “Okay.”

 

“Okay?” John repeated, blinking. Then he gave his head a little shake. “I mean. Okay. Cool. Let’s go.”

 

“W-wait.” Will caught John’s sleeve before he could step away. “Can you ask someone to check in on him, though?” he asked. “Maybe Penny?”

 

“Yeah. Sure.” With a lingering, confused frown, John continued away.

 

As they strode toward the depot, Will almost tripped on his boots. His body didn’t want to keep moving away. He desperately wanted to turn around and go back, to be close to Robot while they had the chance. It’s better this way , he reminded himself. He’s better off without me. As had been clearly demonstrated in the past few weeks, Will did not truly have Robot’s best interests at heart, as much as he’d thought he did.

 

He still couldn’t believe his own reactions to Robot the previous night. After hours of agonizing over his treatment of his best friend, Robot had shown up and Will had… had… 

 

God, what’s wrong with me? Will pushed his hair out of his suddenly hot face with a shaking hand and glanced at his father, grateful that John seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts. 

 

Or maybe that wasn’t so great. Left to himself, Will circled back to the knee-melting rush of need that he’d experienced when Robot entered his bedroom. He’d been on the verge of just sinking down and dealing with the problem right there on his bed, but he couldn’t stand the thought of doing that to Robot. Again.

 

“Right,” John barked, startling Will out of his rumination. He blinked and looked around, realizing that they’d arrived at the depot already. “Since you borrowed an Alpaca last weekend, you’re going to wash them. All of them.”

 

Will turned a slow circle, taking in the lot of the small vehicles. There had to be over two dozen of them. “You want me to drive them through a wash?” he asked, squinting at the depot buildings to find an entrance to drive through.

 

“Uh, no. There’s a bucket, a sponge, some soap, and a hose.” John pointed at a little pile of supplies just outside the depot’s access port. “You can use your imagination.”

 

Briefly, Will considered complaining. One should not be forced to scrub a vehicle with a sponge after crossing the galaxy in an interstellar spaceship and helping to establish a colony so technologically advanced that it couldn’t have been imagined by humans only decades earlier. 

 

But. He realized that the point of this exercise was not just to clean Alpacas. He was being punished.

 

“Okay,” he sighed, and trudged on.

 

**

 

Hours later, grimy soap suds oozed down Will’s chest and arms. His back and knees ached from kneeling and reaching into wheel wells and under chassis. He’d lost the feeling in his fingers from the cool water. He would have given anything to just stop and sit down.

 

Then the hairs on the back of his sweaty neck lifted. The skin on his spine prickled. He felt the familiar weight of Robot’s attention and knew that he had followed them. 

 

He shuddered in dismay. Now he wanted anything but to stop and have to face Robot’s inquisitive, insightful stars.

 

He scrubbed harder in a crevice behind an Alpaca’s front grating. Most of the sticky mud from the Proxima B wilds seemed to have lodged into that narrow space and he couldn’t have been more grateful.

 

“Hey, Robot,” he heard his father greet from the folding chair he’d erected nearby. “Hey, Pen. Didn’t expect to see you here. What’s up?”

 

“Will Robinson.” Robot’s voice cut through the rasp of Will’s frantic scrubbing. 

 

“Er, I tried,” Penny said thinly. “Robot didn’t want to stay home.”

 

“Ah, well, Robot, you know things have been a little tense since you shot someone. Maybe you should head back.”

 

Will’s fist squeezed around his sponge and he swallowed painfully as hot anger bubbled in his stomach. Robot shouldn’t have to hide . He shouldn’t be locked away. 

 

He shivered again as he fought himself, pressing his forehead against the Alpaca’s cool grate. He wanted to lunge up and defend his friend, but should he? Did he have the right? He was no better than anyone else, he was no advocate or voice for robotkind…

 

“Will Robinson.” Robot’s thudding footsteps approached. 

 

Will tried to ignore him, but the chunk of mud chose that moment to dislodge and leave the Alpaca’s grating shining clean. He sighed, sat back on his heels, tossed his sponge in the bucket, and pushed wet hair away from his forehead with the back of his wrist.

 

“Will Robinson.”

 

Will stood and turned grudgingly to face him, hands plucking at the hem of his soggy shirt, trying to peel it away from his clammy skin. “Hey,” he managed hoarsely, focusing on Robot’s spiky shoulder. “You okay?”

 

Robot churred and stepped closer. 

 

Will stepped back reflexively and came up against the Alpaca behind him. He gripped the slick metal at his hips and tried to avoid looking directly at the enchanting infinity of Robot’s face. His heart was beating too fast; burning heat and an icy chill took turns washing through his veins. He wanted to… to go to Robot. To find comfort and safety in his enormous, inhuman arms like he had so many times before. 

 

“Will, are you all right, son?” John asked, his voice calm, but the tone low and carefully controlled. 

 

“Yeah,” Will said weakly. 

 

Robot closed the distance between them until he stood within arm’s reach of Will. Will had never felt threatened by Robot, but right then he shook with fear. Not of Robot, but of himself, and the rabid beast that had taken the place of his heart, clawing the inner walls of his aching ribs. A heavy weight of expectation settled around him.

 

Robot wanted something.

 

Will swallowed to moisten his dry mouth and throat--the only dry part of his body at that point. “Yes?” he squeaked, forcing his eyes to lift above Robot’s chest plates.

 

Robot’s stars pulsed and swirled slowly, peacefully. He bent, plucked the dripping sponge out of the bucket, and passed it to Will, who took it with a kind of surreal confusion. Then he held his arms out to the sides.

 

Penny burst out laughing. “He wants a wash!”

 

For some reason, that only made Will’s tension worse, as he remembered squeezing into the shower with Robot in nothing but a towel. Rubbing Robot down with soapy water, digging into his crevices, scrubbing the dirt and grime away from his runes and articulated, molded plates… something about the thought was both exciting and terrifying. He crushed the sponge nervously between his palms. “I... I don’t think I… I mean, I have to wash all these Alpacas, Robot. I don’t really have time to wash something else. Sorry.” 

 

Robot’s arms lowered. His shoulders slumped and spikes flattened. 

 

“Sorry,” Will murmured again. 

 

Robot straightened and seemed to shake off his disappointment. He extended an open palm, obviously demanding something, though it wasn’t immediately clear what he wanted.

 

“Um…” Will hummed uncertainly.

 

In a smooth motion, Robot darted his hand out and snagged the sponge out of Will’s clutches. He squished it a few times and then advanced on one of the dirty Alpacas.

 

“Oh, n-no. No, Robot, it’s okay.” Will hurried after him and caught his wrist before he could do more than carve a stripe in the layer of dust on the hood. He couldn’t feel much through his frigid fingertips, but his entire arm trembled as though a subtle energy emanated from Robot’s dark blue metal. “This is my job,” he explained when Robot looked down at him. 

 

“Robot,” Robot said. He tried to pull his arm out of Will’s grasp.

 

Will held on until Robot started pulling him in toward his chest, and then quickly let go. He shifted urgently, trying to think of something to say so Robot would stop stealing his penitence. “I made a mistake,” he said. He glanced at John and Penny, who both looked on, their expressions tight. Lowering his voice, he added, “This is how I show that I’m sorry. This is how I fix it. I need to do it.”

 

Please understand. You’ve done so much for me already. Don’t take this, too.

 

With an air of grudging acceptance, Robot finally stepped back. He jerked his head once, a curt, unhappy movement, and set the sponge on the roof of the Alpaca.

 

Will breathed out slowly. “Thanks, Robot. So, I think Penny wanted to hang out with you?” He looked to Penny again and experienced a resurgence of indignation that she had tried to keep Robot at home. “Maybe you should show her the quarry?” he suggested, hiding a smile when John groaned. “I bet she hasn’t seen it yet.”

 

Robot stared. Will could almost feel his skepticism, as though he knew Will wanted to get rid of him. But, just as Will was beginning to try to come up with another destination, Robot nodded again.

 

“Okay. Bye, Robot.” 

 

Robot thudded to Penny’s side, looked down at her for a significant moment, and then continued toward the street.

 

Penny chased after him. “Hey, wait!” her voice carried over the lot. “Do I need better shoes?”

 

Will watched until they disappeared behind another building, and then sighed wearily. He grabbed up his sponge, collected his bucket of dirty water, and wandered to the hose for a refill. When he returned, John was leaning against the Alpaca, his arms folded. Will froze and watched him warily.

 

“Will,” John started slowly. “Something seems a little… off. With you and Robot. Is something going on?”

 

“No.” Nothing except Will’s own twisted mind and twisted reactions. He pushed past John, dropped his bucket at the rear of the vehicle, and crouched. “You didn’t want him here, so I asked him to leave. What more do you want?”

 

John huffed. “It’s not that I don’t want him here, it’s just…” He stepped away and rubbed his short hair as he surveyed the surrounding neighbourhood. “Well. You know,” he finished in a mutter. 

 

“Yeah, I know.” 

 

“If you know, why did you send him off somewhere?” 

 

“Because I know and I don’t care ,” Will snapped. He focused on the grimy metal under his sponge rather than watch his father grow more and more frustrated. “I’m not going to ask him to hide. You can punish me, but he doesn’t deserve that.”

 

John let out a pinched sigh. He seemed about to say something--Will heard his sharp inhale--but then he simply returned to his chair and sank back into it.

 

**

 

“Seriously, is it a tough climb?” Penny persisted. “Because these are not climbing shoes.”

 

Robot continued his long strides forward, disinterested in the question. Will had directed him to guide Penny to the “quarry”--a former mining location now occupied by immature humans. Although Robot had several other directives to follow, Will had made the request with that pained urgency with which he had given other directions recently, so Robot would comply. But his compliance did not include advising Penny on her foot coverings.

 

“Aw, man,” she muttered, trotting after him.

 

As they passed through one of the many sprawling residential areas, his auditory sensors picked up a sound that he never expected to hear. The processors responsible for cataloguing and filtering auditory input briefly stuttered to a halt and his steps paused. 

 

"How I am, Samantha?"

 

Though muffled, Robot had no trouble making it out. Human words, but not made by a human voice. The flat, electronic quality was unmistakably robotic.

 

"No, it's how are you !" said a thin, much quieter human voice.

 

"How are you, Samantha?" came the robotic intonation.

 

"I'm good, thank you! We’ll work on that more when I fix up your chest. But good. Super good!"

 

By the end of the string of excited chattering, Robot had pinpointed the origin of the voices--a small, blue-coloured building somewhat behind one of the many dwellings. Curious.

 

“Everything okay?” Penny asked, arriving beside him.

 

Robot considered sending a message to the robotic speaker, but understood a significant possibility that the speaker would respond poorly and alert Penny to his presence. This would likely result in a negative outcome for all involved.

 

So he continued on.

 

“Well, this is pretty neat, I guess,” Penny said when they arrived at the edge of the quarry. She peered over, glanced up at Robot, and returned her gaze to the pit. “I mean, I don’t know why Will wanted me to see this, but whatever. Can we go home now?”

 

Penny wanted Robot to remain in his house. Robot would not comply, especially not after hearing that voice.

 

Robot started down the path to the quarry bottom, expecting Penny to follow. With a sigh and a mutter of “ So not the right shoes,” she did.

 

The four immature humans present in the quarry paused in their decoration of the walls. Robot allowed himself to admire their work as he descended, analyzing the angles and ratios of the figures they had been painting, filing images within his memory for later replication or deconstruction.

 

“Woah, it’s Robot,” muttered one, holding their aerosolized paint closely. “This is awkward.”

 

“Oh, no way,” Penny laughed. “They’re painting you!”

 

Robot stopped at the bottom of the path to devote more of his attention to the images. He had interpreted them as a stylized, dark-skinned humanoid and a grey circle. Only with Penny’s added context did he conclude that, yes, the large, four-armed and helmeted being represented himself, and the grey circle likely represented the Resolute. The Robot figure appeared to be holding the Resolute in its inferior arms while the superior arms applied a sustained laser.

 

“I think that’s when you were literally holding the ship together.” Penny elbowed his arm. “You’ve got fans!” She stepped away, heading toward the four artists and their mural. “Hey,” she called. “You were all in the last wave with us, right?”

 

Once Penny’s attention had redirected from him, Robot shifted his configuration, freeing his superior arms and significantly increasing his functionality. He crouched, building kinetic energy in his actuators, and then sprang up at the quarry wall. His jump carried him nearly back up to the edge. He dug his claws in, gripped the rock with his feet, and easily propelled himself up and over.

 

“Wait, Robot!” Penny shouted below him. “Where are you going?”

 

The indicators of distress in Penny’s call went against Robot’s deeply layered coding--he experienced a directive to return and ease her concern. However, a stronger directive took precedence.

 

He sprinted close to the ground across the unpopulated field surrounding the quarry. When he reached the colony streets, he ensured to hide himself behind a building before reverting to his two-armed configuration. Then he executed a basic escape protocol, striding at a quick pace in a zig-zag around the human habitations to remove the likelihood that Penny would see him when she emerged from the quarry. He encountered nine humans; eight of whom watched him pass and one who hurried into their habitation when he crossed their land parcel.

 

He wound his way back to the habitation with the blue building. There he came to rest behind a corner and scanned his surroundings. A heart pulsed rapidly in the blue building, accompanied by the gentle hum of servos and the faint scratch of metal-on-metal. He sensed a slow, dormant heart beat from the habitation and other humans nearby performing unhurried, human activities. He calculated a high probability that they were unaware of the blue building’s occupants and his own presence. He would endeavour to maintain that lack of awareness.

 

His comm buzzed with a message from Penny. He ignored it.

 

“You look really good in white,” came the light human voice from the small blue building. After a quiet beat, it added, “You're supposed to thank someone who compliments you.”

 

"Thank you," murmured that robotic voice. “Look good in white?”

 

“Handsome.”

 

He waited for a human to walk past the habitation before striding out from its shadow toward the small blue building. He passed a curious pile of porcelain shards, catalogued the new form of human art for later examination, and arrived at the building’s door. It fit crookedly in its frame and a deep dent told Robot that someone had likely forced their way inside. 

 

Only then, with his predictions nearly assured, did Robot experience a rush of excitement. He hovered a hand over the dent and sent a signal of greeting into the small building, hoping to establish a connection. 

 

All noises within ceased.

 

A question encrypted with Scarecrow’s familiar protocol answered his greeting. “How did you find me?”

 

Robot helpfully provided a memory file of his sensors easily picking up the sound of Scarecrow's voice from the street. 

 

When no additional response came, he repeated the greeting and requested entry.

 

He waited.

 

The scuff of footsteps on the sidewalk nearby prompted him into movement--a human was about to walk by. He had observed enough of human behaviour to know that they were curious and prone to exaggerated fear responses when Robot and Scarecrow were involved. To protect his friend, he needed to get out of sight.

 

He sent a brief warning of his entry, shoved the door open, and stepped inside. With care not to leave any gaps through which a curious eye could peer, he closed the door behind himself before turning to scan his new surroundings.

 

After a quick determination that nothing in that space posed a danger, Robot focused on Scarecrow. He stood near the rear wall, hunched to avoid the ceiling, his red processes striating with heightened caution. He appeared to be in functional condition; white metal panels covered the majority of his injuries and, despite being inferior to Scarecrow’s armour, they did seem to offer protection to his vulnerable internal cabling. When Robot compared his last images of Scarecrow to the one standing before him, he noted that no new injuries had occurred. This had been a concern that Robot had experienced since they parted ways--this concern eased with the new information.

 

He shifted his attention to the human climbing to their feet next to Scarecrow, a welding tool in their hand. Samantha , Scarecrow had referred to them. He took a moment to link to the colony’s network and scan the population database until a face popped up that matched the ratios and geometric measurements of the facial features in front of him. 

 

Samantha Brennon. Human. Female. Eleven. Brown hair. Brown eyes.

 

Additional information loaded into his working memory, but he moved his attention away from the automatic download to scan his surroundings. It looked like someone had attempted to demolish the building’s contents. A shelving unit had been turned on its side to Robot’s left, a pile of snapped resin boards and posts and twisted metal had been shoved into a corner to his right. A heap of human thermal coverings took up most of the floor in the centre. 

 

Curious. Robot had not seen this configuration for a dwelling before.

 

His scan complete, Robot returned to Scarecrow. He offered another greeting and a request to initiate a direct link.

 

Scarecrow didn’t answer.

 

Robot’s head tilted in his adopted curiosity mannerism and he offered a questioning swirl of his own processes, concerned by the lack of response. Was Scarecrow broken?

 

“Robot,” Samantha said, drawing Robot back to her. “Uhm…” She teetered forward and back on her feet, her skin becoming even paler and eyes widening, darting over Robot and then behind him as though looking for something. Whatever she found, or did not find, appeared to alleviate some of her anxiety; the tension in her shoulders and neck eased and normal capillary blood flow resumed. She frowned up at Scarecrow and pushed one of his inferior arms. “Scarecrow, it’s rude to stare.”

 

Scarecrow’s red face tilted down and his processes calmed to stillness, apparently reassured by the presence of the immature human.

 

Curious.

 

Scarecrow looked up and said with flat intonation, “Hello, Robot.” Samantha poked him in the arm and he added, “How are you?”

 

Robot swirled in confusion. He considered Scarecrow and his Samantha, working through the unusual use of the human verbal language rather than their more efficient direct link. He appeared functional. His initial signal had been clear. Therefore, the human language had been a choice and not imposed by lack of ability.

 

Perhaps the small human had influenced Scarecrow’s processing in some way.

 

Regardless, Robot would adapt to the amended communication method. He terminated his own signal and activated those small servos which could most accurately replicate the vibration of the human larynx. 

 

“Fine,” he said, the word most often used by Will when asked the same question. 

 

His servos churred as he tried to translate his complex questions into the primitive language. He wanted a full status update and a summary of their time apart on the planet. He wanted to know what Scarecrow knew. He wanted to know why that small human was permitted to poke Scarecrow’s arm without retaliation.

 

He also wanted to share what he had learned of the humans: the organization of their colony and hierarchies, their technology, their biology, their art and history. He wanted Scarecrow to understand the importance of returning to the habitation that they had been meant to share so the tensions between the humans, Will, and themselves could abate. He wanted Will to see Scarecrow in this functional state so that his pain would ease.

 

Instead, he was limited to the few words he had bothered to program.

 

“Status?” he asked, fists clenching and releasing in irritation at the limited communication.

 

"Damaged," Scarecrow replied.

 

Robot dipped his head and swirled again to encourage further elucidation.

 

Scarecrow seemed to relax. ”Damaged,” he repeated haltingly. “Functional.” His light dulled as though he were working intently inwardly. 

 

“It would be ‘and’,” Samantha hummed as she moved the pile of thermal layers to the side and stored her welder in a case. “When you use two descriptive words beside each other, you say ‘and’." 

 

Scarecrow sidestepped, keeping Samantha within his visual range. He hunched closer to her, stars dancing curiously. "And damaged. Functional?" he asked. 

 

"Damaged and functional," Samantha supplied. 

 

Scarecrow gave a nod and straightened, turning to Robot. "Damaged and functional, and wearing new pieces." He picked at one of the pearl white patches on his arm, pointing it out to Robot. "Hiding," he continued. 

 

Samantha tsked. "I am..." she prompted. 

 

"I am hiding," Scarecrow finished with another nod. 

 

Samantha chuckled, rubbing the back of her neck. "He's getting there,” she said apologetically, “but he’s a quick learner."

 

Robot dipped his processor in understanding. None of the information that Scarecrow and his Samantha provided had been unknown to Robot. Obviously, Scarecrow was damaged, functional, wearing new pieces, hiding, “getting there” (Robot inferred based on context that this was in relation to his progress in learning the human language, which was, again, apparent based on his demonstration), and a quick learner. 

 

As irritating as the lack of data was, at least he had spoken. Robot’s memories held many instances of Scarecrow ignoring, blocking, or otherwise responding negatively to communication. Perhaps the limitations of the method were beneficial. 

 

Would Scarecrow respond favourably to other methods of human communication? Samantha had touched him multiple times. If Robot attempted physical contact, would this result in a favourable outcome? Would this adequately demonstrate Robot’s relief at seeing Scarecrow? Would he understand the intent of the gesture? If there was one thing that Robot wanted him to know, it was that Robot’s deep programming continued to hold Scarecrow as both a mission directive and a--

 

“Friend.” Robot cautiously thudded deeper into the shed and extended his arms, hoping to invite Scarecrow to come closer so he could place them around Scarecrow’s upper torso in the hug that humans found so comforting and meaningful.

 

Samantha squeaked and clapped a hand over her mouth.

 

Scarecrow stood motionless and then his processor snapped toward Samantha.

 

Samantha jerked into motion with a huff of breath. "Well?” she prompted. “Hug him, you dummy.” Her thin arms went out and wiggled, possibly to mimic the hug gesture though Robot had never seen a human hug in such an erratic manner. 

 

“You are,” Scarecrow responded, though without any of the striations of true annoyance. He looked back at Robot, seemed to consider him, and his superior arms twitched and the inferior extended. He deliberately stepped into the circle of Robot’s arms and accepted the gesture, wrapping his own inferior arms around Robot’s torso.

 

Robot’s sensors thrilled as Scarecrow leaned against him. Several layers of programming were satisfied by that embrace--from his distant mission to rescue him from his human captors to his drive for friendship to the simple enjoyment of the rare sensation of another’s personal electrical field mingling with his own. The last time he had held Scarecrow, the rust and bronze warrior had been a frail, heavily damaged remnant. Now he was strong, and getting stronger, and Robot’s concerns dwindled even further.

 

He turned his head to regard Samantha as she lifted her wrist comm in the familiar motion of someone recording something. His stars swirled and pulsed in a mix of curiosity and happiness. She had directed Scarecrow to accept Robot’s embrace and Scarecrow had obeyed. Why would he obey? Because she had been patching Scarecrow’s damage? Who was this human?

 

The details from the colony database offered little reason for her to have found and assisted Scarecrow, but that wasn’t a surprise. Human records typically included very little substance. Her record did indicate that she had been on the Resolute with the Robinsons, thus she had likely been on the Fortuna. With some searching of his memory files, he was able to pull up several instances where she had been involved in his and Will’s activities, though never as a major variable. Her familiarity with Robot may have been a factor in her presence here with Scarecrow. 

 

He stepped away from Scarecrow reluctantly. As much as he wanted to focus on his friend, it would benefit him to involve Samantha in the exchange of information. Humans tended to speak a great deal, and some of the words actually held meaning. Perhaps prompting her to speak, or prompting Scarecrow to speak of her, would induce further details. And, if Samantha was responsible for Scarecrow’s improved condition, she was worthy of his gratitude.

 

“Samantha Brennon,” he intoned. "Thank you." He extended a hand and clenched it in the universal greeting of immature humans: the fist bump.

 

Samantha stared blanky at his fist for a moment, and then her face transformed with a smile. "You’re welcome!" Samantha exclaimed and gently rapped her knuckles against his fist. 

 

Satisfied, he wiggled his fingers and pulled his hand back. The greeting ceremony was complete.

 

Samantha’s face suddenly turned pink and her teeth bit into her bottom lip. She squirmed in place and then burst out, "I didn't think you'd remember my name! I hung out with Will on the Resolute for a while, but you never really looked at me. But thats okay! 'Cause you know my name, so you had to have--" She cut off, gulped, heaved a breath, and continued, her volume and frequency rising with every word, “--have noticed me then! I think you're super great and, no, thank you loads fordecidingtobeadecentrobotandnotkilleveryone!" 

 

Scarecrow shifted sideways during the last of Samantha’s verbal outburst. She glanced up at him and her expression transformed into constricted panic. She lunged toward Robot and gripped his arm.

 

"By the way,” she said urgently, “please, please, please, please don’t tell anyone he’s here. My mom would kill me, and they aren't exactly fans of him right now..."

 

Robot nodded his understanding. Of course he would not tell anyone of Scarecrow’s presence, not when Scarecrow had already made it clear that he did not want to be found. As well, Will had suffered disciplinary reprisal in order to conceal the identity of Scarecrow’s human companion; Robot would not undermine his effort and sacrifice.

 

However, Will’s emotional status would be greatly improved by knowledge of Scarecrow’s well-being.

 

“Will Robinson?” he asked, looking from Scarecrow to Samantha and back again, wondering which of the two would answer.

 

Samantha frowned, her face scrunching. “Ye--”

 

"No,” Scarecrow said.

 

Samantha whirled, hands on her hips. "And why not?" she demanded. 

 

Scarecrow tightened in on himself protectively. "Human." 

 

" I'm human," Samantha countered. 

 

"Other human." Scarecrow’s voice lowered into a growl and he took a step toward her, spikes and plates flaring threateningly.

 

Robot would have been concerned for her well-being, but he calculated only a seven percent possibility that he would cause injury to his human. The pattern in his processes indicated fear, not aggression.

 

Samantha stood firm, though Robot detected a tremble in her slender limbs and her heart beating abnormally fast. "It's Will," she said. "He's safer than me." Her hands clasped behind her back. "Please? You don’t have to see him yet or anything. It would be good for you if another human knew. Also, you can't get along with humans and also hate them. They’re not all bad, you know." 

 

Scarecrow stood for a long moment, staring. Then his spikes flattened in defeat. He glared around the small building, brought his foot down on a piece of scrap metal and squashed it flat with a screech, and dropped into a humanlike, seated position. He clawed one of the thermal layers over his legs, sending a flat, rectangular object skittering across the floor.

 

"Fine," he said.

 

Samantha smiled, crossed her arms over her chest, and turned to Robot. "You can tell Will. But don't let him over here till 'Crows ready!"

 

Bemused by the interaction, Robot watched as Scarecrow conceded to a compromise with Samantha with only minimal collateral damage. The young human’s combination of fragility, dominance, and usefulness seemed to convince Scarecrow to acquiesce.

 

He nodded his own agreement, aware that Scarecrow disliked proximity to most--previously all --humans. Although he could happily spend the remainder of his existence with Will nearby, he could not expect others to do so. 

 

However, he would ensure that Scarecrow and his new companion were as secure as feasible in their currently precarious situation. 

 

He brought up his wrist and the human communicator fastened to it. With a few delicate keystrokes he’d entered Samantha’s ID Code and sent a friend request. “Robot Robinson wants to be your friend. Accept or deny?”

 

Samantha’s comm buzzed and she blinked at it. She peered up at Robot and another grin stretched her lips. She poked her comm and Robot received her acceptance of the request.

 

"Should I let you catch up then?" Samantha asked after swiping her comm a few times. She smiled between Robot and Scarecrow. "Is that why you found us? I’m just glad it was you and not someone like... my mom." She giggled, but it seemed more of a nervous release than an expression of happiness.

 

Robot considered Scarecrow and calculated the amount of time it would take to “catch up” via the human language. Typically, he would request a data packet for the information Scarecrow had learned since they’d separated, respond with one of his own, and then they would exchange deeper information: individual requirements and desired outcomes, strategies for fulfilment, predictions of success, possibilities for failure. As equals, they would develop a strategy for meeting their needs and ensuring the security of both them and their human companions. 

 

However, Robot estimated an extremely low chance that Scarecrow would agree to that direct transfer. They would need to communicate by spoken word or images. The time requirement was prohibitive. Especially as Penny’s texts and calls were coming with greater and greater frequency. If he did not return to her within the next few minutes, she would be in a state of emotional distress; an outcome he would prefer to avoid. She would also likely alert other colonists to his absence and he would endanger Scarecrow by creating a heightened alertness among the humans.

 

“No,” he said to Samantha’s question. He would not catch up with Scarecrow; not until they had more time or a more direct channel for communication. 

 

He let his gaze linger on Scarecrow for a moment, letting his processes play through the figures of contentment. He wanted to show Scarecrow his happiness at finding him and gaining knowledge of his security. 

 

His comm buzzed. Again. He must depart.

 

He lifted a hand in a gesture of farewell and turned to the shed door.

 

"See you, Robot!" Samatha called behind him.

 

Scarecrow whined quietly, the only warning before a cacophony of metal clattering filled the small space and heavy steps thudded against the floor. Robot sensed the movement behind him, but didn’t turn. He would allow his friend to do whatever he intended to do without Robot’s direct observation to affect him.

 

As his hand closed around the door handle, Scarecrow’s weight leaned into him from behind. His arms tightened around Robot’s shoulders and lower torso, claw tips digging tenderly into the crevices in Robot’s armour, and then he released his hold as quickly as he’d attached. 

 

“Welcome… here,” Scarecrow said, an inferior hand still lingering on Robot’s flank. 

 

Robot watched over his shoulder as Scarecrow backed away and retreated to his nest of thermal layers and scrap. He hadn’t expected the sudden physical contact, but enjoyed it just the same. He hadn’t thought Scarecrow would seek that contact the way that he did. He set a hopeful sub-directive to one day ensure that they and their humans would have a place to co-exist without needing to hide.

 

Then, having scanned the exterior environment for human presence and knowing he could not delay with the frequent buzzing of his comm, he continued out of the small building and closed the broken door firmly behind himself.

 

Already striding toward his own dwelling, he sent the coordinates to Penny, to assure her that he was already exactly where he needed to be.

Chapter Text

Perfectly Natural 17

 

Will could barely move when he returned home with John in the late afternoon. He slunk into the house, limped to the shower, and stood under the hot water until he got the sensation back in his hands and knees. When he emerged, he overheard Maureen, John, and Penny talking quietly in the kitchen. Penny’s voice set him on edge; her presence meant Robot was around. He almost sent out a feeler to see where he was, but caught himself. He didn’t want to inadvertently summon him.

 

His discretion had been unnecessary; Robot had invited himself into Will’s room and stood in the centre, quietly glowing in the darkness.

 

Will jolted backward into the hall, reflexively grabbing his stomach. “Robot,” he gasped. “What are you doing here?”

 

Robot thudded into the light and held out a hand, palm up. “Scarecrow,” he said quietly.

 

“Scare--” Will cut himself off. He frowned down the hall toward the front rooms, holding his breath and waiting to see if anyone had heard them. 

 

The other Robinsons continued their conversation in the kitchen, apparently undisturbed.

 

Will released his breath in a sigh. 

 

“Scarecrow?” he whispered, stepping into his room. “Is he okay?”

 

Robot nodded and nudged his hand closer to Will’s bare chest. 

 

Will reflexively reached to take it, but paused a few centimetres away. His fingers trembled and he swallowed. He could almost feel a force around Robot, making his skin tingle. Goosebumps prickled from his stomach to his arms and legs. His belly tightened. He met Robot’s swirling gaze with trepidation. 

 

Stop it! he wanted to cry in rage at his body, at his own inexplicable and unwanted physical reactions. This is about Scarecrow !

 

He forcibly dredged up painful memories of the bronze and rust red robot: from his wasted, near-dead figure in Robot’s arms, to the powerful warrior who came to Will’s aid despite the decade of abuse at human hands, to the injured creature keeping his distance on the Fortuna. 

 

Thankfully, his body took the hint and settled back to nervous calm. Will’s arm continued moving and he was able to rest his hand in Robot’s palm.

 

Robot's fingers closed gently around him, and Will welcomed the rise of Robot's memories: He saw a broken door, what looked like the inside of a shed turned upside down, and in the middle a familiar reddish robot. With a blanket .

 

He's okay , Will saw with deep relief. He'd held a lingering fear that Scarecrow had either met his end from Proxima's natural dangers, or that he'd encountered a human and either hurt them or been hurt.

 

But… he seemed better . As Robot continued feeding him flashes of Scarecrow standing and moving in the dim light of the shed, Will saw that the worst of his injuries, which he'd carried for a year , had been patched. He was indoors somewhere, presumably safe, perhaps even comfortable. 

 

Robot gave him more than just images; he sent Will his own observations of Scarecrow's behaviour. He moved with greater ease than he had on the Fortuna, and he appeared to be learning more of human mannerisms.

 

“I am hiding,” Scarecrow said in Robot’s recollections, his voice flat and mechanical.

 

He's talking? Will chuckled inwardly. Are you going to take lessons?

 

Sardonic knowledge appeared in his mind: the human verbal language was one of the least efficient communication methods that Robot had ever encountered. 

 

Will briefly wondered just how many sentient creatures Robot had met, but pushed the thought away. He had more important things to ask about. Where is he? Who is he with? For he could sense that someone else had been there, though Robot kept them just out of sight.

 

The memory flickered and ended. Will blinked back to awareness of himself in the gloom of his bedroom. The frame of his door dug into his shoulder blades; he must have slumped back when Robot shared his senses. He drooped with a sudden fatigue, but he hadn’t even come close to fainting, so that was an improvement. 

 

He couldn’t help but smile at Robot’s swirling, pulsing, curious nebula, forgetting his fears. “He’s okay,” he rasped, feeling like he’d set down an immense weight he hadn’t realized he’d been carrying. “He’s safe.”

 

Robot nodded.

 

“He just… doesn't want to see me, I guess.” Will didn’t need to see Robot’s nod. He tried to shrug off his pang of disappointment. “After everything he’s been through… I don’t blame him for wanting to limit human contact. I’m just glad he’s all right. I hope that one day he’ll be ready to see me again.”

 

Robot’s fingers, still closed around Will’s hand, tightened enough to draw Will’s attention. He tugged Will closer.

 

Still focused on thoughts of Scarecrow, Will let himself be pulled deeper into the room. It was only when his bare chest pressed against warm metal plates and a heavy hand splayed across his back that he realized what Robot was doing.

 

“O-oh.” He almost jerked away, but couldn’t fight his own weariness and weakness. He’d been craving a hug from Robot since… since the last time, he supposed. Nothing else made him feel this heady mix of secure and excited. So he leaned in, eyes closing, and rested his brow on Robot’s smooth central panel. His free hand fell to the segmented armour of his hip, reflexively following the grooves with his finger pads.

 

Robot held him closely, claws slowly stroking Will's hair, the back of his neck, and trickling down his spine to the edge of the towel.

 

Oh . The goosebumps returned in a rush, with an all-over tremor that made his fingers clench and legs shake. Without meaning to, he tilted his hips, pushing himself against the hard ridges of Robot's thigh. His body responded to the pressure with alarming speed, blood rushing to his groin as his heart throbbed and ears roared. 

 

It was wrong, but he pushed harder, and the sensation of unyielding metal plates and rough towel made him gasp weakly. 

 

What's wrong with me?

 

His hips rolled and he squeezed his eyes shut, face burning at the realization that he was rubbing himself against his best friend and he couldn't stop himself. 

 

Maybe Robot didn't notice?

 

Robot continued that maddening touch all over Will's bare back. He churred softly and moved Will’s slack hand to his hip and gave it a nudge. A memory of touching himself reared up in his head, stronger and more clear than the memories of Scarecrow. 

 

Robot had noticed. 

 

"A-ah, Robot," Will hissed. "I can't…"

 

But he wanted to. His own cool hand against the sensitive skin low on his belly contrasted with the warm metal against his stomach and chest. He wondered how it would feel if he just… brushed away the towel? It would be so easy. Then he would feel each ridge of Robot’s thigh against his aching need. 

 

He turned his head and pushed closer, flaming cheek to Robot's chest, reaching around for the spikes bristling from Robot's back. He slid his fingers between them, heart hammering from the sense of danger ignited by those sharp edges. 

 

He wanted… something. 

 

More than his own hand, more than an audience--

 

This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong. 

 

Robot just… felt things with him. He didn't understand what it really meant. How could he when Will didn't understand what it meant? But how could it be right for Will to… to want him? It wasn't fair for Will to take advantage of him like this. It wasn't fair for his delirious mind to imagine Robot's claws sliding under the towel and pushing it off his hips, to imagine Robot's fingers roving his naked skin, to imagine grinding himself against Robot until he left a sticky mess on his glossy, blue-black leg--

 

As though answering his thoughts, Robot drew stinging lines down his shivering flanks and traced the edge of the towel. A claw slipped under--

 

"Oh, God, Robot," Will almost sobbed, burning with a mix of shame and desire, his resistance crumbling to nothing, clinging to Robot, hips rolling helplessly. "I'm sorry."

 

"Will?" called John's voice from the kitchen. "You done in the shower? We're going to heat up some grub."

 

Will jumped, his blood rioting, heart trying to claw out of his chest. He snatched his hands back, wincing as something stung his finger, grabbed his towel to keep it on his hips, and tried to backpedal.

 

Robot didn’t let him. His palm pressed to the curve of Will’s spine, holding him in place. His glowing face tilted down, purple stars streaming. He traced Will’s cheek with a claw, brushed through his hair. His low churr surrounded Will, like another caress.

 

“Will?”

 

Footsteps creaked in the hall.

 

“Let me go,” Will whispered urgently. If John found Will taking advantage of Robot like this, what would he think? “Please.”

 

Robot’s hands fell. 

 

Will backed away and hit his light switch--standing in the darkness with Robot would have been questionable--and quickly moved to his closet. 

 

“Hey,” John said, stepping into the doorway, “everything all right in here?”

 

Will kept his back turned, hiding his flushed face and awkward swelling. “Yeah, just trying to find some clean clothes.”

 

“You need to do some laundry?”

 

“I guess.” Will found a shirt and pulled it over his head. Then, a little more protected, he edged around the room to his dresser to fish out underthings and a pair of soft sleep pants. “Uh, a little privacy?” he asked over his shoulder.

 

“You heard the man,” John said, nodding at Robot. “Let’s give him some space.”

 

Robot didn’t move.

 

“It’s okay. I’ll just…” Will side-stepped past John, gaze cast down to avoid his father’s confused frown. “I’ll just go to the bathroom.”

 

Will hid for a time, sitting on the floor and hating his traitorous body. He’d come so close to taking what he wanted… he hadn’t been able to stop himself. 

 

You have to do better

 

He could not trust himself to be alone with Robot.

 

So he joined his family for their meal and, as soon as Robot emerged from his room to follow, Will fled back inside and closed the door behind him.

 

**

 

“See you next week,” John called to the house at large as he swung his duffle over his shoulder, his usual Sunday farewell. 

 

Maureen hurried to the door, still holding her tablet. “Stay in touch,” she said distractedly, leaning in for a kiss.

 

“Oh, I’ll be in touch all right,” John growled playfully. He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her in close, bringing their faces together. 

 

Will rolled his eyes skyward where he lay curled on the couch, trying and failing to pay attention to an assigned documentary on Earth’s ancient cultures. Gross .

 

When John finally stepped out and the door slid shut behind him, Will breathed a shallow sigh of relief, and not just because his parents had finally stopped kissing. For the next five days, he wouldn’t have to actively avoid his best friend and feel that deepening sense of guilt for turning away from him. 

 

Maybe by the next weekend, he’d be able to figure out what was going on with him and why he couldn’t stop reacting when Robot came near him. Maybe. 

 

None of the books that John and Maureen had sent him said anything about physiological arousal triggered by psychic connections to alien robots. Apparently, no one had encountered this issue before. For some reason.

 

He groaned in frustration and palmed his face. 

 

“Hey, Will?”

 

He grudgingly twisted to look at Maureen where she perched on the arm of the couch at his feet. The way her brows pulled in and her lips pressed together in concern did not bode well. He watched warily as she shifted her tablet in her hands, waiting.

 

“I made an appointment with Dr Choi this week,” she finally said quietly. “All these migraines you’ve been having… I’m getting really worried. I want you to go in for an MRI and some blood panels.”

 

A little shiver prickled down Will’s spine. “It’s not that bad,” he protested. “I only get them sometimes.”

 

“It… it’s more than just the migraines. I mean… there’s been some, ah, erratic behaviour, that we’ve noticed the past few weeks.” She breathed deeply and added, her voice quick and urgent as though she was fighting against an inner argument, “I know it hasn’t been easy to get here and settle down. I know that you’ve experienced… a lot. You’ve experienced a lot these past two years. And adjusting to a new planet can be extremely difficult. I mean, we only have about five thousand data points to go on, and that’s not much! But I… I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t take this seriously. What if the cause of these migraines is more than just stress and adolescence? What if…” She trailed off and the expression of pain on her face and the brightness of her eyes made Will swallow a lump of sympathy. She reached down and touched his foot through his blanket, as though he was still a kid and she was just making some random gesture of maternal affection in between her work calls and cooking tabbouleh. “I need you to do this, okay? Please?”

 

“Okay,” Will said hoarsely, offering a tiny nod. 

 

Maureen sagged. “Great. Thank you.” She straightened and patted his foot again. “And just think… it’s your birthday next weekend. That’s something to look forward to, at least. Is there anything that you want?”

 

Will closed his eyes to block out her forced cheer. He wanted his friendship with Robot back. “No,” he whispered.

 

“Well, think about it. Your father suggested getting you soy loaf and Penny mentioned going and getting another one of those --” she nodded at the bright, formless painting on the dining room wall, “--so you might want to speak up.”

 

“Sure.”

 

Maureen sat there for a long moment as Will tried to fix his attention on his boring documentary. Then she sighed, squeezed his foot, and vanished from his peripheral vision. 

 

**

 

“This won’t hurt at all,” Dr Choi said, repeating the explanation Maureen had given him over breakfast that morning. “Magnetic Resonance Imagining uses magnetic fields and radio frequencies to polarize the protons in slices of your body, and transform the RF readings into images. I’m going to give you an injection of a contrast agent that will make it easier to see the internal structures, and then you will just need to sit very still in that chair for a few minutes.” She nodded behind her. Where they sat in the MRI control room, they could see the machine itself through a large window. “Can you do this for me?”

 

Will considered Dr Choi and wondered what she and Maureen would do if he said “No.”

 

Sedate him, probably. 

 

So he shrugged. “Okay.”

 

As at their first meeting, Dr Choi didn’t really smile, but she did dip her head in a nod. “Good.” She turned her chair to open a small cooling unit and retrieve a vial, wrapped syringe, and sanitizing wipe. With short, efficient movements, she snapped gloves on, prepared her syringe, and gestured Will closer. “Your hand, please.” 

 

He set his hand on the desk between them and looked away as Dr Choi wiped the back of his hand. He tried to focus on the many monitors and computers around the room, wondering at their purposes. Surely, a dozen separate computers weren’t necessary to control two electromagnets, a radio frequency transmitter, and a receiver. 

 

The syringe hissed and his hand twitched from the pinch, but he managed not to make a sound. Dr Choi finished quickly with a small bandage over the injection site.

 

“Good. Now, while that circulates, let’s catch up on some information missing from your diary.” She lifted an unimpressed eyebrow.

 

Will groaned inwardly. He’d been hoping that prepping the MRI would take all of her attention and she wouldn’t mention his missing entries and extremely brief answers.

 

“You still haven’t elaborated on your experiences when you connect with the alien,” she continued. “I can’t stress the importance of this information. What you feel will help us understand what’s happening, and will let us know if there is a problem.”

 

“Uh…” Will swallowed heavily and looked anywhere but at Dr Choi and Maureen. His face heated. He rubbed his suddenly sweaty palms on his thighs. What could he say? For a heartbeat he thought about spilling everything. He felt a pressure in his chest: a strong desire to tell them everything from the frightening but exhilarating intensity of his connection with Robot, to the completely inappropriate responses of his own body, to his feelings of absolute failure when it came to being a friend to the most incredible organism in the universe. 

 

But what would they do if he told them…?

 

Sedate him again, probably.

 

So he swallowed again, pushing those thoughts down. He would figure that out on his own.

 

“Well, I can see what he sees, when he wants me to.” That seemed safe. “More than just the spectrum that human eyes can see. Last weekend he let me see in, um, infrared. I think he can see that way normally. He transmitted the information to me, and my, uh, brain, I guess, applied that information to my own optical input. It was like an overlay.”

 

“What?” Maureen breathed.

 

“Interesting,” Dr Choi murmured. “Please continue.”

 

“He has a lot more senses than we do. I think he’s been giving me data all along, but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to interpret it.”

 

“Neural elasticity,” Dr Choi agreed. “The human brain can make incredible adjustments to incoming sensory information. What else has he shown you?”

 

“He’s sent me, um, knowledge? I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just facts. Sometimes there are visions or sensations, but sometimes not. And he lets me use that information.” He mulled over the incident at the quarry, when his body responded to Robot’s input and batted that rock out of the air despite the darkness. It was almost like Robot could directly control him.

 

“And does he talk to you this way?”

 

“Yeah, of course. He talks a lot. Like, about art and science, and he’ll tell me a few things about his past, and he wants to know what people are doing, and he likes games and movies. You know, the usual stuff.”

 

“The usual stuff?” Maureen repeated, her tone disbelieving. “Will, he has a vocabulary of ten words. Why doesn’t he talk to anyone else?”

 

Will shrugged. “He just doesn’t want to, I guess. I don’t know. Maybe it’s hard for him? He doesn’t have a voice box.”

 

“He could text us!”

 

“Do you experience any pain or discomfort from this communication?” Dr Choi interrupted.

 

“Not… not really,” Will hedged. Sometimes it turns me on. “It can be weird sometimes. And sometimes I get tired.”

 

“Or you pass out,” Maureen added. 

 

Ignoring her comment, Will continued firmly, “But it doesn’t hurt. It never hurts.”

 

“Do you think there’s any association with the headaches you’ve been having?”

 

“I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t really get them when Robot’s around, so they don’t have anything to do with him, right?”

 

“Hmm.” Dr Choi stared at him, her dark brown eyes narrowed and expression inscrutable. Her fingers tapped the desk. “I would like to get the alien in here as well, to see this connection in action and understand how it works.”

 

Will stiffened. “He doesn’t want to be studied.”

 

“It’s not him I want to study.” Her lips quirked in a rare show of amusement. “How about you ask him if he would be willing to help us understand what’s happening to you , Will. Would he be aware of the importance of this research?”

 

Will’s hands twisted together and he avoided her sharp gaze. He had little doubt that if he asked Robot to come to the medical centre, he would. And that thought just added to his guilt. “Maybe,” he muttered.

 

After a long pause, Dr Choi cleared her throat delicately. “The contrast agent should have permeated your body now. We will move to the other room. Please remove anything metal from your person.”

 

Will had been forewarned and had dressed in his pyjamas and a plain white shirt that morning. He unbuckled his comm from his wrist and removed his boots, and stood to join Dr Choi and Maureen at the door to the MRI chamber.

 

“How are you feeling now?” Dr Choi asked, peering up at him.

 

He shrugged again. He felt awful, but what would it help to say anything? His Sunday evening migraine had returned, making the night an exercise in futility for getting any sleep. Monday had been quiet and isolated--at school he’d kept his aching head lowered and barely stumbled through his classes. Gideon had acted like nothing had happened the previous week, but everywhere Will went he could feel hard, judgemental stares. Going to the medical centre on Tuesday had been something of a relief, though it was a waste of time. He was fine. 

 

Dr Choi took his silence at face value and led him into the white, brightly lit chamber. The room was empty except for the MRI itself, constructed of two large structures on either side of a chair. Will had already looked up the design and function of the machine, so he wasn’t concerned when Dr Choi directed him to sit. He allowed her to strap his head into place as Maureen looked on.

 

“The scanning will take a few minutes,” Dr Choi warned him. “Do you want to watch something while you’re waiting?” She pointed at a screen on the wall above the window to the control room.

 

“Anything’s fine,” he said. 

 

Maureen chose something--a documentary about red dwarf stars--and then both women returned to the control room. Will watched Dr Choi sit in front of one of the computers and Maureen hover behind her shoulder, arms tightly folded across her stomach. Will she ever stop worrying? he wondered, growing annoyed. He knew that he had some problems, but her constant concern definitely wasn’t helping.

 

He tried to pay attention to the documentary and relax and just let the scan happen if it would make Maureen and Judy stop worrying, but a strange sensation had begun in the back of his head. A tingling? It was in the same… vicinity?... as the location where Robot seemed to connect with him, if there was a location. 

 

Robot? he thought, wondering if Robot was trying to reach out to him from the construction site.

 

There were no accompanying images or sensations, though. No thoughts or emotions or those threads of knowledge winding into Will’s awareness.

 

It was just… a tingle. 

 

Then the machine around him began to thump faintly and the tingle became an itch. 

 

He shifted in discomfort, trying to rub the back of his head against the chair. 

 

The itch intensified. It crept down his neck and up his skull. It buzzed into his inner ears. He squirmed, tugging on the plastic straps holding him in place. 

 

“Will, you need to sit still,” Dr Choi’s voice came over the intercom, difficult to hear as the buzzing became a ringing. 

 

“Something's wrong,” he tried to tell them, but the words stuck in his throat as his jaw started to clench and shake. His neck and back knotted. Colours and shadows shot across his eyes. The ringing in his ears drowned out the thumping of the machine and drone of the documentary. 

 

"Will!" 

 

His name came from a foggy distance.

 

"Will, can you hear me?"

 

He came back to himself, slumped in a chair, Maureen's arms around his chest, his head on her shoulder. Did the Jupiter just crash? he wondered muzzily. He ached all over. What happened?

 

"Will?!" she pulled away to look into his eyes, cupping his cheeks in her cool palms. "Are you okay?"

 

He tried to sit straighter, a little embarrassed to be caught leaning on his mother and by the way she was holding his face. "Yeah," he croaked from a sore throat. "Yeah, I'm good. What…?" He trailed off, his gaze rising to take in the bright white room around them and the small woman frowning behind Maureen. Memory slowly seeped back in. The journey, the struggles, the triumphs, Proxima B, Robot, their connection… "What happened?" he finished more strongly. 

 

"I don't know," Maureen said tightly. Her hands dropped to his arms as though she didn't want to stop touching him. She twisted to look at Dr Choi. "What happened?" she repeated, her voice hard. 

 

Dr Choi didn't respond for a long moment, but stood with her hands clasped together and a frown creasing her smooth brow. Then she gave a shake of her head. "It looks like a seizure, but… there is no reason for an MRI to cause one. Unless there was some latent stress or anxiety. But there were no signs, Will seemed to be completely calm. And he doesn't have a medical history of seizures, correct?"

 

"Not that we know of." Maureen's attention returned to Will. "Those fainting spells…"

 

"It's not the same," Will cut her off hurriedly. "This was…" His stiff jaw worked as he tried to put the experience into words. "Bad. It felt bad. All over. That's not what it's like with Robot." He lifted a hand, now free he noticed gratefully, with red welts around the wrist that he didn't remember getting, and rubbed the back of his head where the buzzing had begun. The location had been similar to the area where he seemed to feel Robot's presence, and it felt as weary as it could get after receiving Robot's visions, but that must have been a coincidence. 

 

"I want to check your vitals and keep you in observation for a few hours.” Dr Choi turned away and added over her shoulder, “Sit there for a moment, Will, and I will call a wheelchair.”

 

The thought of being wheeled through the Med Centre jolted Will out of the chair. He pushed to his feet, bracing himself against one of the large magnets to keep his balance.

 

“Will…" Maureen sighed.

 

"I'm okay now. I can walk."

 

Ignoring Maureen and Dr Choi's disapproval, Will pressed on. He collected his belongings and followed Dr Choi to her office. There she ran the battery of tests to which he had become familiar: temperature, respiration, blood pressure, pupillary dilation, blood draw. Then she told him to sit in the waiting room. 

 

After three hours of nothing but school reading, answering memes from Gideon, and learning a powerful hatred for the waiting room chairs and their ergonomic design, Dr Choi finally called him and Maureen back to her office. He fixed his gaze on the new image on her wall--a fantastically high definition close-up of ancient-looking, colourful threads in a cross hatch pattern--trying to avoid her faintly disapproving stare. 

 

"There is no obvious cause for your grand mal seizure," Dr Choi said, regarding him over her glass desk and quiet, folded hands. “My only hypothesis is that some variable related to the MRI triggered it. If you would be willing to attempt it again, perhaps with a sedative--”

 

“No!” Will blurted, a cold fist suddenly crushing his lungs and heart. Unreasonable fear made him shrink away, gripping his elbows in a reflexive attempt to protect himself. He had nothing to be afraid of--he knew that--but his pulse thundered in his ears and his mouth dried. His memory of the event had already begun to fade, but he could remember a feeling like white noise consuming his mind as he’d sat in that machine.

 

“I agree with Will,” Maureen said. “Let’s try another way.”

 

“An MRI would be the best way to determine what happened, but… perhaps an EEG is a good place to start.” Dr Choi swept her desk and brought up her holographic displays. “I will schedule you to come in again, Will.”

 

“All right,” Will mumbled, trying to hide his shaking. 

 

“And you were in for long enough to get a few scans. I will examine them closely for any usable data.”

 

A response didn’t seem to be required. Will just nodded. 

 

“Until next time, Will. And please continue filling in your diary with as much detail as possible.”

 

When they’d left the quiet white halls of the Medical Centre, Maureen said, “I know we were planning for you to go to school for the rest of the day, but I don’t think it’s a good idea now. I don’t want you to have another seizure at school.”

 

Will--already suffering from worsening fatigue and not looking forward to the thought of seeing his classmates--shrugged. “Okay.”

 

**

 

“Hey, happy birthday, Will.”

 

Will paused outside his bedroom and blinked groggily at Penny and Maureen where they stood at the other end of the hallway, both of them smiling at him and looking far too awake. 

 

“Happy” wasn’t quite the word for it. Even for a Thursday, the day was already lousy. After the MRI on Tuesday and a bland, isolating Wednesday, he’d slept poorly. It didn’t seem right that he’d feel so terrible on his birthday. Wasn’t it supposed to be a special day? Instead it was just another disappointment.

 

“Uh, thanks,” he muttered, and continued into the bathroom.

 

“We’ll have a family supper tomorrow,” Maureen told him over breakfast. “When your dad and Robot are back.” She smiled gently. “And maybe this weekend we can waive the punitive tasks.”

 

Will kept his head down, hating how the mention of Robot’s name sent a tremble up his spine. Fear? Anticipation? He didn’t know anymore. “Okay.”

 

“Is there anything special you want tonight?”

 

“Not really.”

 

“What’d we used to have back on Earth for your birthday?” Penny asked. “Didn’t we go to that place with an arcade in it? Maybe we should have stale, greasy pizza?”

 

He could barely remember that far back, but with some effort he could dredge up a memory of bright lights, loud games, and running in a pack with his friends--

 

He winced and shut it down.

 

“I can’t think of anything. Whatever you want is fine.”

 

“Will, are you okay?”

 

“Yeah.” He shrugged a shoulder and shoved his last bite of soy loaf into his mouth. “I have to go,” he said as he carried his plate to the kitchen.

 

He tried to ignore the worried, hurt look his mother stared after him.

 

At school, he managed not to reveal the significance of the date until he got a call from his father at lunch. Whenever John’s name came up on his comm, his mind immediately leapt to concern for Robot, wondering if John had a question about Robot’s behaviour or if something had gone wrong at the site. He accepted it immediately.

 

“Dad?”

 

John’s voice immediately belted out, “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to--” 

 

Will slapped his hand down on the speaker and shot an embarrassed glance around the table. Les and Pavi burst into laughter and Gideon stared blankly, chopsticks hovering partway to his mouth as though he’d been stunned.

 

Hot in the face, Will waited until John’s muffled voice had finished its song before removing his hand. “Thanks, Dad,” he said. “I think.”

 

“No problem,” John said cheerfully. “How’s your special day going?”

 

Les and Pavi laughed louder. 

 

Will sank down in his seat, covering his eyes. “It couldn’t get any specialer. Sorry, Dad, I gotta go. There’s a math thing.” His perennial excuse for getting out of conversations with his father.

 

“Sure thing. I’ll see you tomorrow. Have a great day, Will.”

 

“You, too.”

 

When the call terminated, Will let his head fall onto his arms and groaned. 

 

“I can’t believe how sweet your dad is,” Pavi exclaimed. “John Robinson is so hard core, but he still sang for you!”

 

“Yeah, I guess.” Will turned his head to roll his eyes at her. “Just wish he could’ve been a little quieter.”

 

“Happy birthday, bro.” Les reached over to slap his shoulder. 

 

“Thanks.”

 

“Happy birthday, mate," Gideon added, his voice unusually clipped.

 

Surprised by the frigid tone, Will tried to read his expression, but his amber eyes remained focused on his lunch and his face was set, still and distant. “Thanks,” he said again, quietly.

 

When he’d finished eating, Will stood to leave, expecting Gideon to stay with his brother and friend. Instead, he shoved away from the table, grabbed up his half-eaten meal, and followed Will out.

 

Just outside the cafeteria, Gideon slouched closer and bumped Will’s arm with a bare elbow. “Hey,” he said. "Why didn’t you tell me?"

 

“What?” Startled, Will’s mind immediately leapt to everything he had never told Gideon and he walked into a wall of stainless steel lockers.

 

“Your birthday?” Gideon’s pierced black eyebrow jumped and he smirked as Will straightened his bag and rolled the shoulder. His previous chill had vanished, replaced by a brightness in his eye and a bit of colour on his sharp cheeks. 

 

“I don’t know, it’s not a big deal.” 

 

“Yes it is! You’re fucking fourteen now, right?”

 

“Yeah.” Will shrugged and continued down the corridor. What did it matter, anyway? 

 

“Got any plans?”

 

“Just stuff with family. I’m still grounded.”

 

“No going out? No games? No nothing?”

 

“Yeah.” They turned onto the corridor that led to Will’s human history class. For some reason, Gideon kept pace beside him. Maybe he had somewhere to go on that side of the school?

 

Halfway down the hall, Gideon caught his sleeve and tugged him into an empty classroom. Will, not in any particular hurry to get to his history class so far before the bell, obliged him, distantly curious. He let himself be directed toward the row of desks at the rear of the room, out of view of the corridor. Gideon set him against one of the desks and leaned against another, arms folding.

 

Will let his attention wander around the room and out the window to the dusky orange sky. The dim, gloomy light matched his mood: weary and distant. He had a sense that Gideon wanted something from him, but he couldn't dredge up the energy to feel more than vaguely curious. 

 

“So, uh, Will,” Gideon began, tugging on his ear and staring at a point near the teacher’s console at the front of the room. “I’ve been wanting to ask you something.”

 

Will’s head snapped around, his focus sharpening and heart rate picking up. Now? Was Gideon about to ask about his father again? He couldn’t handle it. If he had to think about Ben, he might just fall apart…

 

“Ah… oh, shit, maybe this isn’t the time.” Gideon searched Will's face, scratched his shaggy black spikes, and muttered, “Shit. I just. Call me sometime, okay, mate?”

 

Warily, Will nodded and tried to swallow. “Yeah, okay,” he croaked. 

 

Will expected Gideon to stalk away, the conversation over and somehow dissatisfying, but instead he straightened and closed the gap between them. Colour rose in his pale cheeks. As Will watched him suspiciously, afraid of more questions, Gideon abruptly leaned in and wrapped him in a hug.

 

"Uh," Will uttered, frozen and uncomfortable with Gideon's arms pinning his own to his sides. Gideon held him snuggly, his face close enough to Will's that he could feel the warmth of his skin and smell his cologne. The proximity made his skin crawl. It wasn’t unpleasant--he liked Gideon well enough, even found him interesting in a distant kind of way--but physical contact was the last thing he wanted. The sensation of a lean, hard body pressed against his own caused an unwanted reaction. "Gid?" he urged, awkwardly pushing at his chest. 

 

Thankfully, Gideon stepped back, releasing him. 

 

“Sorry, mate,” he said roughly. “I was a little surprised, yeah? You should’ve told me. I would’ve…” He trailed off and turned away, his hand returning to his hair. “Ah, never mind.” He flashed a little nervous smile over his shoulder. “You’ll call me?”

 

“I’ll try,” Will managed, the most that he could promise.

 

“Thanks.” Finally, Gideon collected his bag and strode to the door. He paused, mouth opening as though to say something, and then snapped it shut. He gave a brief salute and sauntered out to join the thickening crowd.

 

Will breathed a sigh of relief. What was that?  

 

No answers appeared in that quiet room, so Will scrubbed his face and followed Gideon out.

 

**

 

As always, Will could sense Robot’s approach when he neared the colony. He shivered where he sat wedged on the couch between Penny and Judy, gripping his controller tightly. His sisters had agreed to play a battle royale game with him, Penny with enthusiasm and Judy with a roll of her eyes. When he felt that first gossamer intrusion, he lost his momentum on a combo and fell off the edge of the battle platform.

 

“Hah, sucker,” Penny chuckled. 

 

Will nearly dropped the game to flee to his room. After the previous weekend, he didn’t know if he could face Robot. He swam with a mix of guilt-riddled eagerness and fear. He’d hurt him. But he still… wanted to be near him. He frequently woke up thinking about Robot’s shifting, articulated plates, his seemingly limitless strength, his blue sheen, his glowing, endlessly expressive nebula, his claws gently scratching faint symbols onto his skin. The twisted direction of his thoughts and the unwanted responses were getting worse, not better, leaving him frustrated and choking on self-disgust in the darkness of his room when everyone else was asleep.

 

But if he hid, wouldn’t Robot just find him? Wouldn’t it be better to stay with his family, distracted and safe? Maybe then he wouldn’t suffer those sick reactions.

 

So, still shaking, he forced himself to continue playing despite performing so poorly that he lost to Judy . More than once.

 

He wished he could have blocked out Robot’s increasing nearness and focused on the game, but he became more and more aware of Robot with each passing second, with each breath he took. His pulse throbbed with anticipation, the surge of blood seeming to whisper Robot’s name. 

 

When the door finally opened, it was almost a relief for the suspense to be over, until he saw Don walk in. 

 

“Hey, there’s the birthday boy,” Don announced, his smile shining against his dark scruff. He held out his arms, a bag dangling from one, and gestured for Will to get up. “Bring it in.”

 

Will tried to shake off his gloom--not hard with Don’s irrepressible cheer brightening the room--and pried himself out from between his sisters. He strode warily to the door and let Don pick him up in a bear hug, struggling to hide his discomfort at the contact. He’d just started to realize that Don was actually quite handsome, and that awareness mingled with his heightened sensitivity to Robot, leaving him feeling tight and awkward. 

 

“Thanks, Don,” he mumbled, putting some space between them as soon as Don set him back on his feet.

 

“Here you go.” Don passed the bag into Will’s hands. “Enjoy.”

 

Curious, Will peeked inside and found a case of Centurian cola and a dozen bars, boxes, and baggies of real candy. “Oh, sweet,” he yelped, fishing out a chocolate bar. 

 

"Yeah, just don’t tell anyone you got ‘em from me. Especially not you-know-who .” He nodded significantly at Judy, who watched them with a raised and very unimpressed eyebrow.

 

“I heard that,” she said.

 

“Just guy talk,” Don said glibly, clapping Will on the shoulder. Then he laughed and squeezed. "I can't believe it. I still remember when you were just a little squirt, and now look at you."

 

"Yeah," Will said automatically, though he didn't really know what Don was talking about.

 

He had a moment to smile uncomfortably as Don gazed at him fondly, and then the door opened again. Will jumped, his skin immediately flushing as Robot's huge form thudded in.

 

Robot didn’t so much as stop to look around. He brushed past Don and swept an arm out toward Will. 

 

Will backpedaled toward the couch. "Uh, h-hey." Before Robot could touch him, he forced himself in between Penny and Judy. He picked up his dropped controller and held it like a shield, keeping his bag of junk food bundled on his lap. 

 

"Welcome home, Double R," Don said, his voice strained but smiling as broadly as ever. "How was your week?"

 

Robot ignored him. He came to stand next to the couch and turned his attention to the game on the screen. 

 

"Hey, Robot," Penny said, "you want to play?"

 

Robot didn't answer, but the game exited the current round to the character selection menu. A fourth player appeared and selected one of the cutest and least threatening characters. 

 

They began the next round and Will shrank down as Robot's adorable pink ball of a character proceeded to annihilate Penny and Judy and then just stood there, staring at Will's fantasy elf knight. Will couldn't bring himself to attack when Robot wasn't either, so they stood at an impasse.

 

"It's just a game," Penny groaned, leaning backward to make a rolling, get on with it gesture at Robot. "You can kick his butt."

 

Robot didn't respond. 

 

Will sighed and dropped his controller again. "I'm out."

 

"Good timing," John said from the doorway, dropping his duffel on the floor. "Come give your old man a hug."

 

It was Will's turn to groan. Grudgingly, he got up again, edged past Robot, and accepted another bear hug.

 

"Happy birthday, Son," John said into Will's shoulder. When he set him down, he held Will out and looked him over, a suspicious glossiness in his weary eyes. "Shoot," he muttered, "you're really not a kid anymore."

 

"Hey, he's not that old, either," Maureen objected from the kitchen. "He has a few years to go yet before you can start crying."

 

John chuckled forcefully. "I'm not crying, I'm reminiscing." He stepped away and collected his duffel. "So who's ready to party?"

 

The "party" was a low key repeat of the evenings that they'd had together as a family on Proxima, with the addition of a round of gifts after they ate Maureen's flavourful soy curry.

 

Will forced himself to smile as he sat himself back on the couch, Maureen and Judy on either side, Robot like a small sun next to the couch for all that Will’s skin continued to burn wherever it felt Robot’s ceaseless attention.

 

“Me first!” Penny shouted, shoving something broad and flat into his arms.

 

Wrapped in two colony shirts painted with bright, unnaturally colourful flowers, he found a large digital art frame from Penny, pre-programmed with images of the planets they had visited and pictures of family and friends. 

 

"This should brighten up your room," Penny said smugly. 

 

Will, staring at a picture of Robot and the three Robinson children on the first planet, couldn't answer. He looked at his own round, innocent face tilted up at Robot, who loomed beside him. His throat closed. Then it shifted to a nebula, and the reminder of Dr Choi's office made him feel a twist of nausea. "It's perfect," he managed to rasp. "Thank you."

 

He opened a pretty orange bag tied with a bow and frowned in confusion. "Um. Deodorant?”

 

"It's not just deodorant." Judy leaned across the couch to pull out the bottles and jars packed into the bottom. "It's a teenage hygiene kit." 

 

"Oh my God," Penny guffawed, laughing so hard that she nearly fell out of her chair. “Judy, that is the worst gift .”

 

“What? No way. It’s all super useful.” Judy held up a squat bottle, displaying it for the other Robinsons and Don to see. “There are three different aromatherapy colognes, some herbal deodorant, a room spray, some hair gel in two colours . Will, you’re going to look good, smell good, and it will help you relax.”

 

Will shrank deeper into the couch, his face flaming. “Thanks,” he whispered, probably inaudible under the sound of Penny sobbing with laughter.

 

“Now ours,” John said once Penny had calmed down. He dragged a large particle board into the space in front of the couch. On it sat a lumpy mass about a metre high and a metre wide, draped in a sheet. “Happy birthday, space explorer.”

 

Will scooted forward, intrigued. He tore the sheet away and blinked in surprise. On the board his parents had set up a telescope on a tripod, two small folding stools, a rolled sleeping bag, and a little pile of other camping supplies.

 

"Oh, sick!” he exclaimed, running his fingertips over the length of the black plastic tube and up onto the lens shield. “A telescope.”

 

John rubbed his short hair, smiling softly. “Yeah, we thought you might want to go out sometime, set up camp, and look at the universe.”

 

“I also downloaded some software for it,” Maureen added, tapping some ports near the eyepiece. “You’ll be able to record, scan, input an overlay to help you find what you’re looking for, and there are some basic analyses. And then I’m sure you’ll want to design some of your own.”

 

“Yeah.” Will glanced at the front window, disappointed to see the orange daylight. Then he grinned at his parents. “Thank you. This is awesome.” He gazed around the room at his family and friends, happy for the first time in forever. "Thanks, everyone."

 

Metal shuffled against the floor beside the couch and Will flinched, his simple joy vanishing.

 

"Will Robinson," Robot murmured, thudding into place beside the telescope, his steps making it tremble. When Will nervously met his swirling stare, he held out a hand. On his palm stood two delicate figures made of artfully twisted scraps of metal, one a dark blue and the other dark red. Basically humanoid, their four clawed arms clearly identified them.  

 

“Oh,” Will huffed, his heart squeezing. “It’s you and Scarecrow.”

 

“Yes,” Robot agreed, pushing them toward Will.

 

“They're beautiful,” Will breathed. He wanted nothing more than to pick them up and turn them around and investigate the details. He thought he could even see the grooves and creases of their armour. But… he was already breathing too fast and flushing all over. What would happen if he touched Robot's hand? What if he became… excited… right there? In front of his family?

 

He shrank away.

 

"You can put them on the table," he said quietly, pointing at the dining table and stacks of dirty dishes. 

 

Robot stared. Flecks of orange zipped through his starry face. He didn’t move.

 

Will felt sick, hating himself for seemingly dismissing the incredible gifts.

 

“Can I see them?” Penny asked, standing from her chair. “These are gorgeous, Robot.”

 

Robot’s glowing face slanted toward her. He seemed to consider her, and then he returned to Will. His wrist twisted and he dropped the fragile pieces onto the floor, where they bounced once and came to rest. 

 

“Uh, okay,” Penny said meekly, stepping back. She glanced nervously at Will, who could only shake his head speechlessly. 

 

Robot swivelled and strode to the front door. Without a word or a look behind him, he stomped out of the house.

 

Quiet stretched between the remaining Robinsons, broken only by the shush of the door sliding shut. Will avoided the stares of his family, instead leaning forward to collect the Robot and Scarecrow figures from the floor, carefully extricating a few of their claws from the carpet fibres. They were as perfect as he’d thought, light and sharp-edged, flexible enough that he could adjust their arms and legs. They reminded him of the poseable, anatomical model he’d carried around for so long as some kind of pitiful substitute for his best friend, but so much more , and made by Robot himself. Robot had even managed to carve tiny runes into their arms, marking them as unique and fantastically alien.

 

“Okay, what the hell just happened?” John finally asked.

 

All eyes turned to Will. 

 

“I’m tired,” he said with difficulty, struggling to keep his voice level. “Th-thanks, everyone. I need to go. I’ll… I’ll put this away tomorrow.” He stood, a fragile robot in each hand, and hurried away.

 

How much longer could he do this? He’d hurt Robot. Again. He could feel Robot’s pain, like a… like a discordant noise he heard with that part of his mind where Robot resided. But if he hadn’t pushed him away, he would have done something worse. 

 

It seemed like, no matter what he did, he just hurt Robot. Over and over again.

Chapter Text

Eighteen

 

The next morning, Will almost couldn’t convince himself to leave his room. He lay in his bed, toying with his perfect, dark blue Robot figurine, indulging himself in a bitter fantasy where it was the real Robot in his hands. He scratched his tender inner arm with the figure’s tiny claws and swallowed heavily when the sting stirred deep, terrible longing. What’s wrong with me?

 

Before he could go any further, he rolled himself upright, set the little robot next to its partner, and escaped.

 

He moved his gifts into his room with quiet efficiency, stepping lightly so he wouldn’t wake the rest of the house, and sat down to some breakfast. It was a relief when John emerged shortly after with a muzzy ‘G’mornin’”, helping Will to focus on something other than his own misery.

 

"Where are we going today?" he asked when John had finished setting up the coffee maker.

 

"No chores today," John said, leaning back against the counter and pinching sleep out of his eyes. "You're off the hook for the weekend." He held up a cautionary finger. "As long as you do your homework and, I don't know, clean your room?" He leaned back and called down the hall, where Maureen was presumably awake, "Do we still tell Will to clean his room?"

 

"Dad," Will complained. "No, you don't. Besides, I have about ten things in my room. There's nothing to clean."

 

"Okay, cool. So yeah, take a load off. Join a sport. Go to the market. Binge watch some cartoons. Do whatever makes you happy. I am going to drink coffee and then spend some time with my smokin' hot wife."

 

"Oh, gross, TMI."

 

"You don't have someone you'd like to spend time with?" John asked with a sly grin. 

 

Robot immediately popped into Will's mind, and all the things that they could do together. He hurriedly forced himself to picture something else, afraid that Robot might pick up on the direction of his thoughts. 

 

“Not really,” he muttered, struggling with his annoyance. The one time he wanted John to drag him off to some tedious day of labour… 

 

If he stayed home, he’d have to actively avoid Robot or push him away. Same for most of the locations around the colony. He’d definitely follow Will to the quarry, and if Will took a chance on the market and Robot came after him, that would aggravate the already high tensions. He needed to go somewhere that Robot didn’t want to go, and would only go to if Will explicitly told him to.

 

Ah. He knew just the place.

 

“I’ll see if Gideon’s up to anything,” he said.

 

“Gideon?” John repeated, blinking, his grin falling. “I thought you had--ah, never mind. Sure. He’s a good kid. Most of the time.”

 

“Yeah.” Will finished eating and stood to leave. “Thanks for the day off.”

 

“Happy birthday.” John winked.

 

Back in his room, Will found his comm and flopped onto his bed. He sent a voice call.

 

Gideon picked up after a few seconds. “Hey,” he greeted, his voice a little rough. 

 

“Hey, Gid.” Suddenly nervous, Will wet his lips. “Sorry, did I wake you up?”

 

“Maybe. I thought I was dreaming.”

 

“Oh. Um, I know it’s early, but… can I come over? I need to get out of my house.” And go somewhere Robot wouldn’t want to go.

 

There was a moment of silence, enough for Will to worry that Gideon was trying to think of a way to say no, and then he said, “Of course, mate. When you gonna get here?”

 

Relieved, Will sighed and relaxed. “I don’t know. I need a shower and then it’s about a half hour to walk. Maybe an hour? Is that okay?”

 

“Yeah, I’ll see if Les can take my shift at the greenhouse. If not, you might have to chill while I make my rounds.”

 

“That’s okay. Maybe I can help out.”

 

“You want to? Not gonna lie, there’s like a 0.4 percent chance that Les will actually say yes, and 87 percent chance that he’ll nerf me for asking.”

 

Will laughed. “Yeah, don’t ask. I’ll try to help.”

 

“Sick. Then don’t bother with a shower, you’ll be sweaty as hell by the time we’re done.” He paused. “Is, uh, Robot going to be with you?”

 

Will winced. “No.”

 

“Fuckin’-A.” Will could hear Gideon’s grin. “Then, yeah, come to the greenhouse. I’ll be there.”

 

“See you soon.”

 

When he’d terminated the call, Will smiled at his plain white ceiling. Even with everything else falling apart, at least he had a good friend.

 

**

 

Will found Gideon in the soy room, sitting amongst some cross beams about four meters above the floor and working on the ancient climate control computer. He didn’t notice Will at first, so Will took advantage of his distraction to get over the initial gut lurch of seeing his familiar features. The sharp cheeks and dark, deep eyes narrowed in concentration continued to remind Will of Ben despite the many weeks of their friendship, and the reminder carried a sting. 

 

Ben didn’t have any piercings , he reminded himself. His hair was shorter. He didn’t smile as much. He… wore more clothes. Will’s gaze travelled down to Gideon’s lean torso, gleaming with moisture in the humid atmosphere, muscles stretching and flexing as he reached up to adjust something. He quickly dropped his eyes, even more uncomfortably warm than the heating system would account for.

 

After a few breaths to shake off the discomfort, Will cleared his throat.

 

Gideon glanced down with an easy smile. “Hey,” he called. “You made it.”

 

“Yeah. Can I help with anything?”

 

“Just a minute.” Gideon fiddled with something else, clicked a cover back into place, and then climbed deftly down from his perch. When he’d alighted next to Will, he brought up his comm and entered something. A moment later, a motor near the ceiling grumbled to life and a large array stuttered into motion. The array, which extended the width of the long, narrow room, jerked along a track. When it reached the first bed of soy plants, it hissed and spat out a mist of water. “Sweet,” he murmured, grinning at Will. “It’ll work again for another week. Maybe.”

 

“Cool.”

 

Gideon stood for a long few breaths, his warm amber stare pinning Will in place. Then he gave his head a little shake. “Right. I gotta do a few things, and then we'll go chill in my shop.”

 

“Cool,” Will said again. “What can I do?”

 

“I dunno. How’re your muscles, mate?” Gideon stepped into Will’s personal space and squeezed one of his biceps. He smirked when Will flexed. “Not bad,” he said, his voice lowering. “I suppose I can put you to work, then. Ready to get dirty?”

 

“Ah…” Will smiled a little in response, glad that Gideon found him acceptable and more than a little nervous at the sudden closeness. He stepped back and looked down at himself. Expecting to do some labour, he’d worn his usual simple colony-provided clothing: the ubiquitous white t-shirt and loose trousers. “Yeah, I guess.”

 

“Sick. Then we’re moving compost.”

 

About an hour and a half later, Will sagged onto the edge of a raised garden bed and mopped his face and neck with his filthy shirt. Now he knew why Gideon went around topless when he worked; between the temperature, humidity, and physical labour, he was completely drenched in sweat. 

 

“I should get a picture of this for my dad,” he commented raggedly, gesturing at the building full of garden beds that they’d topped up with compost. “He made a big deal out of giving me the weekend off.”

 

“Pft, that was like a weekend off,” Gideon scoffed where he sat nearby. “At least you weren’t here for the sheep manure. It is literally the shits.”

 

"Oh, gross." 

 

Gideon straightened. "Come on, if you stop moving you're gonna stiffen up. There're some showers near the office. We'll hit them and then go eat."

 

"Yeah, okay." Will held up his filthy shirt, already cringing at the thought of putting it back on. "Can I borrow a shirt?"

 

Laughing, Gideon started away.

 

Will stared after him for a moment and then jolted into motion, jumping to his feet to follow. “W-wait. Was that a yes?”

 

The hothouse showers were divided into small stalls, reminding Will of the school gym. Gideon dug a scratchy towel out of a cupboard and a small bottle of soap from his own bag, and shooed Will into one of the stalls. “Don’t take too long,” he advised. “The water gets cold fast.” 

 

Will nodded and went to close the stall door, but Gideon hadn’t moved from where he leaned against the door jamb. He stood there, his arms crossed, a gentle curve to his lips, his eyes heavy-lidded and a bit of colour in his cheeks where they weren’t dusted with soil.

 

“Yeah?” Will asked. “What is it?”

 

“Do you want…” Gideon started, but trailed off. He backed away and nodded toward another stall. “Ah, never mind. I’ll be right over there if you need anything.”

 

“All right. Thanks.” Will couldn’t think of anything he’d need while showering, but appreciated the sentiment. He half-smiled and swung the door closed.

 

When he’d finished and pulled his filthy trousers back on over his damp skin, he wondered why he’d bothered at all. He still felt dirty and sticky.

 

There was no help for it, though. He stepped out, giving his hair another rough towelling. When he’d wrung all the moisture he could manage out of it, he looked up and once again found Gideon staring at him. He sprawled on a nearby bench, already dressed, black hair in damp chunks.

 

Goosebumps rose on Will's arms and chest as Gideon continued to stare. He held his towel close to his stomach protectively, unnerved by the darkness in Gideon’s gaze. “Um, you okay?”

 

“Yeah, mate,” Gideon sighed. He looked away and slowly stood, angling his back to Will and tugging absently on the leg of his trousers. “Just starving. Let's get out of here."

 

"And, uh, do you have a shirt I can wear?" Will buckled his comm onto his wrist and then plucked his disgusting, now grey, shirt off the hook inside his stall, nose wrinkling.

 

"Do you need one? It's a warm day."

 

"Er." Will tried to figure out why the concept of wandering around topless disconcerted him. Maybe years of being on hostile planets and ships had made him uncomfortable without layers of clothes protecting him. "I, um, guess not?"

 

"Sick."

 

They made their way out of the hot house and crossed to Gideon's home under the unusually clear sky and orange eye of Proxima Centauri. Will shivered and hugged himself when the air hit him and immediately dried his bare skin. He tried not to draw attention to his chill, though, afraid of Gideon's scorn.

 

He paused when they reached Gideon's yard, reminded of the last time; sitting in the rain, awkward and hurt from Gideon's mother's outburst, and comforted by Robot's silent presence. Wincing, he pressed a palm against the ache in his chest. 

 

We'll be that close again one day , he assured himself. Once I get this all figured out. 

 

Gideon didn't seem to notice; he trudged to his shed and keyed it open, and then disappeared inside.

 

Will followed into the familiar workspace, welcomed by the smells of solder and ozone and cologne, the bright light, the tall shelves and giant green cushion, the robotic hand and dirty poster. The debris across Gideon's table had changed; he seemed to be working on some chips now, rather than hardware. 

 

Gideon had already crouched down by his fridge. He stood when Will entered, two colas in one hand, a bag of dried meat in the other. "Hungry?"

 

"Oh, ah, do you have anything non-meat?"

 

"Wait, you're a vegetarian?" Gideon blinked at him. "Shit, how did I not know that? Yeah, just a sec, mate. Sit down."

 

Will collapsed onto the giant green cushion with a groan and let his head fall back. "You do this every weekend?"

 

"Hah, yeah, it's why I'm so ripped."

 

A bag of veggie snacks dropped onto Will's stomach, followed by a freezing cold bottle. He yelped and bolted upright as Gideon laughed and settled beside him. 

 

"You wanna watch something?" Gideon asked, tipping his cola toward his computer. 

 

"Okay."

 

Gideon did something on his comm and the shed's lights dimmed and his computer came to life, projecting a menu on the wall. He scrolled through to a sub menu labeled "Boring Tutorials." When it opened, he scrolled through files with names like, "Complex Computer Shit," "How To Do That Thing," and "Just Kill Me, It's So Damn Boring." He finally landed on, "AI for Fucking Idiots," flashed a smirk at Will, and selected it.

 

An Artificial Intelligence tutorial? Will wondered. Cool.

 

"You like robots, right?" Gideon asked as the video started with the production information and a heavy rock soundtrack. 

 

"Yeah, sure--wait, what's--"

 

As Will watched in growing consternation, the title in metallic font scrolled across the screen: Transfornicators 1.

 

The movie opened on a dark junkyard and a young man slowly pedaling a bicycle past piles of scrap metal. "I can't believe someone stole my car," he muttered. "I just got it! My dad's going to kill me. Sam Wet-dicky, you have to get your car back--" He rounded a corner and skidded to a halt. The wheels of his bike slipped out from under him and he fell awkwardly to what appeared to be a gym mat covered in a thin layer of sand. "Oh my God," he cried, his gaze looking at something towering over him. "What the fuck is that?!"

 

"Gid?" Will asked worriedly. "What did you put on?"

 

"Shh." Gideon waved him down. "It's about to get good."

 

The scene cut to show a large black, silver, and yellow robot standing over the fallen man. 

 

Another, larger robot thudded onto the scene, gleaming blue and red. "The human has seen your true form, Rumblebee," it said in a deep, electronic voice. "You know what to do."

 

"Let the human go?" Sam whimpered

 

Rumblebee stepped closer and the song "Let's Get It On" began to play.

 

Will swallowed heavily as the scene unfolded: Rumblebee pinned a struggling Sam to the ground with one giant mechanical hand and slowly stripped his clothing off with the other. When he was naked, lean brown limbs flailing, Rumblebee's armour cracked open and something suspiciously phallic emerged from the region between its legs. 

 

Will couldn't help a snort of shocked disbelief. He looked to Gideon, sure that this was a joke, but Gideon continued watching, a smirk curling his lip as the light from the movie played over his sharp features. 

 

The huge phallus spurted some kind of fluid over Sam's body. He squawked. "What is this?!"

 

"/I'll oil you up and rub you down, down, down, down,/" played from Rumblebee as he smeared the fluid all over Sam's gleaming stomach and groin.

 

"Oh…" Sam groaned loudly. His struggles ceased for a moment and he thrust up against Rumblebee's slick palm. "Wh-what are you doing to me?" he panted. " What are you?"

 

"/You got a fast car,/" Rumblebee sang in a whiskey voice. 

 

Will stared, his pulse throbbing and attention fixated on Sam's glistening erection where it jutted up against his flat belly, visible only in flashes as Rumblebee's hand moved over him.

 

What would that feel like? 

 

Flesh hot and tight with eager blood and sizzling nerves--chilled by the stroke of cold, hard metal...

 

"Why are you doing this?" Sam cried.

 

"/I need to hear the sweet sound of your moan/," Rumblebee crooned. It lifted one of Sam's legs and the video zoomed in on his… his butt.

 

"Uh… um," Will stuttered, tearing his eyes away from the perfectly round globes of Sam's buttocks and the dark gap between them. Again, he looked to Gideon, expecting him to start laughing as the scene became more intense, but he seemed engrossed, his eyes half-lidded, sprawled back in quiet repose, completely cool.

 

"Rumblebee is going to interface with you," explained the blue and red robot. "This will help us win the battle for Earth."

 

"H-how?" Will spluttered.

 

"I know, right?" Gideon snickered. "Any excuse to fuck."

 

Rumblebee rubbed a thick finger along Sam's dark cleft and slowly pushed as his other hand continued rubbing. Sam moaned. Loudly. He clawed at the dusty ground and tossed his head, apparently enjoying himself. 

 

Will almost covered his eyes in chagrin. Blood roared in his ears and rushed everywhere else.

 

He shifted uncomfortably, his trousers getting tight, painfully aware of Gideon's proximity. Would he notice? No, he had better things to do than look at Will. 

 

The situation reminded him of that night with Robot only a few weeks ago, when they had-- And then Will had--

 

Ah, he was burning all over! 

 

Sam was whimpering and groaning and the blue and red robot was murmuring, "Yeah, eat it with your ass, human," as Rumblebee moved on to line up his much larger phallus with Sam's, um, orifice--all of it in high definition. 

 

Will twisted away from Gideon, his face absolutely on fire and his stomach twisting. He tried to focus somewhere else, but the sounds !--

 

The sound of flesh slapping against metal and the slurping , and the panting and the little cries-- He couldn't block it out. 

 

What would that even feel like? Sam seemed to like it. A lot. Just like Doctor Who in the last video. 

 

Was it... good?

 

He couldn't keep his eyes away; they kept sliding back to the screen and the very visible, very stretched entrance.

 

Gideon chuckled under his breath.

 

Will unintentionally flashed a glance at him and froze when he caught Gideon's dark, intense stare, focused not on the video, but on him .

 

"Like what you see, mate?" he asked, and brought his cola bottle to his lips.

 

Will watched him drink, painfully aware of Gideon's mouth, sharp jaw, long throat, the muscles cording on his bare, deceptively lean arms. The sight of him mingled with the action on screen, the intense sounds, and the awful pulsing of Will's body. He envisioned… something. The pressure of skin-on-skin, the sensation of someone touching him. He prickled all over, goosebumps traveling in riotous waves.

 

It's happening again! Will snapped his attention back to the screen. Panicked thoughts circled his mind, trailed by exclamation points. Gideon's my friend! He's so cool and awesome! He wouldn't think of me that way!

 

Did he want Gideon to think of him that way? He didn't even know what way that was. All those relationship books had dribbled out of his head, replaced by the sight of fake Optimus Prime snapping and declaring that he needed relief, and would Rumblebee please get on his hands and knees so Optimus could get at his shiny metal ass? 

 

When they began slamming together with a great deal of screeching metal and breathy electronic moans, Will finally surrendered.

 

"C-could we watch something else?" he asked nervously, hands squirming in his lap. He cringed, expecting Gideon to tease him. Was it childish that he didn't want to watch this? That he couldn't… handle it?

 

But Gideon just chuckled warmly again. "Yeah, sure, it's your birthday. What do you want?"

 

"Um." Will racked his mind for something Gideon might also enjoy. An Artificial Intelligence tutorial?

 

After a long moment of not knowing what to say, Gideon nudged a knee against Will's thigh, making him jump. When he glared, he was again captured by Gideon's intense attention, and any annoyance was overcome by just… some kind of need.

 

"I don't know," he managed in a small voice. 

 

"It's chill, mate. Maybe something funny." Gideon worked on his comm again, navigated to the colony network, and found something. An unfamiliar cartoon came on, and even with Will's limited knowledge he could tell that it was parodying other shows. 

 

"Thanks, Gid," Will breathed in relief. "Sorry." 

 

He dared to look at him, expecting him to be irritated. 

 

Instead, Gideon smirked at him. "You're so fucking cute, it kills me," he said. 

 

"Wh-what?" Will stuttered, feeling light headed. Cute?!

 

"Hey, I got you something." Before Will could wrap his head around the comment, Gideon twisted and reached down for something tucked between the giant cushion and the fridge. "Happy birthday," he said, depositing a fabric bag on Will's lap.

 

"Oh, you didn't have to get me anything." The pressure against his groin was distractingly pleasant--he hurriedly shifted the bag down his thighs.

 

"I know." Gideon shrugged and leaned back, hands lacing behind his head. "No big deal--it's mostly for me."

 

"Uh. Okay?" Confused, but too distracted to figure it out, Will dug in. 

 

He found a bag full of sloppily folded clothes in various shades and styles, most of it soft and just a bit worn around the edges.

 

"Your hand-me-downs?" he asked, relieved to discover that Gideon hadn't gotten him anything that Will couldn't possibly pay back. He held up a pair of black pants decorated with metal rivets, noting that they would fit much slimmer than his own. 

 

"I've been dying to get you out of those damn colony threads you've been rocking," Gideon admitted. "Whatever doesn't fit, you can just pass along or sell."

 

"Thanks." Will dug deeper and found a faded blue shirt with SEED OF LIFE emblazoned on the front. "This is why you didn't give me something to wear."

 

"Hah, yeah, totally," Gideon said to the ceiling.

 

Will untied his boots, kicked them off, and struggled out of the cushion, the shirt and trousers dangling from his hand. He pulled the shirt on over his head and tugged it down to his waist, surprised by the softness. He glanced back at Gideon, found him watching the video, and turned away to push his damp pants down. 

 

They caught on his ankle and he had to hop a few times, blushing hotly at his own clumsiness. Once he'd gotten them off, he left them in a pile and shimmied into the new ones. They hugged his legs, feeling a little strange after however long of wearing loose utility pants or sweats, but fit well enough. He zipped them up, straightened his new shirt, and turned once again.

 

This time, Gideon was staring at him, his expression unreadable, red shading his high cheekbones.

 

“Does it look okay?” Will asked, nervously smoothing the material over his hips. He probably looked like an idiot in Gideon’s hand-me-downs, like a kid trying on his big brother’s clothes.

 

“Not really,” Gideon said softly. Will had a second to wince, hurt, and then Gideon continued, “You look fucking hot.”

 

“U-um, what?” Will blinked, cold with shock.

 

“I mean, shit, Will…” Gideon ruffled his hair and glared at something across the room. “Do you wanna go out?”

 

“Out? Out where?” Will glanced at the door, deeply confused. Maybe Gideon was bored?

 

“No, I mean. Out ." Gideon's arm waved in some indecipherable gesture. "With me . Like--” He lunged to his feet and closed the gap between them in a long stride. He clasped Will’s upper arms, his hands hot on the chilled skin, the sweet spice of his cologne tickling Will's nose. His expression shifted between an angry scowl and a worried frown, his amber eyes glossy, rimmed in red. 

 

Will froze, wondering what he’d done to make Gideon lash out.

 

“Like this.” Then Gideon pulled him closer, his fingers digging into Will’s arms, and ducked his head to press his lips onto Will’s slack mouth.

 

He’s kissing me?!

 

Surprised, Will tried to turn his head, but Gideon caught the back of his skull in a strong hand to hold him still. His lips were soft and warm and moving, and a faint tang of salt played over Will’s tongue. His heavy-lidded eyes burned. He made a little hmm noise low in his throat and his other hand crept around Will’s shoulders and suddenly his body was flush to Will’s from thigh to chest. 

 

Will pushed weakly against his hard chest, overwhelmed and desperate for air, panicking at the thought that Gideon would notice he was still… still excited from the video. The pressure was too good--

 

Gideon finally allowed a slim space to open between them. His hot, ragged breath washed over Will’s cheek. “Like that,” he said roughly. “Do you like me? Would you be my boyfriend?”

 

Will's head filled with white noise and he probably would have fallen if Gideon wasn't holding him upright. 

 

"Boyfriend?" he repeated numbly. “I, uh, do like you, but I don’t know.”

 

“What’s not to know?” Gideon snorted and jerked back, frowning again. “It’s yes or no, Will. Don’t mess with me.”

 

“Wh-what?” Will scrambled to keep up, afraid that Gideon would get annoyed and kick him out. “I'm not trying to mess with you. I just--I’ve never been a boyfriend before? I don’t know how. That was--that was my first kiss?” Did it count as his first kiss if he hadn’t known it was coming?

 

“I got your first kiss?” Gideon’s frown vanished, replaced by a playful smirk. “You don’t need to worry about a thing. Just follow my lead, be your hot self, and I’ll do the rest.” He leaned in again.

 

“Wait!” Will pushed his chest, embarrassed to realize how much smaller he was than Gideon--he didn’t usually notice because they weren’t usually pressed close together. When Gideon paused, pierced eyebrow quirked expectantly, Will wet his dry lips and asked, “What, uh, what would we do?”

 

Gideon chuckled. “You really have no clue, do you?”

 

Somehow, Will became even more hot and flustered at his own frustrating lack of knowledge. “So?”

 

“It’s really cute, that's all." Gideon pressed in, pushing past Will’s resistance to nose at his temple, his lips tickling Will's scalded ear as he continued, low-voiced. "Everything about you is so hot, so cute. We’d just hang out. But I’d kiss you, and you’d kiss me, and we’d make everyone mad jealous. And we could…” He trailed off as his palms skimmed down Will’s sides to his hips and then over his butt. With a little jerk, he pulled Will hard against his own thigh. “We could do a bit of this.”

 

Will, still half-erect from the Transfornicators, got a jolt from the stimulation. He fisted Gideon’s shirt and squeaked. 

 

"So what do you say?" Gideon growled. "You up for it? It feels like you're up for something ."

 

Will floundered; Gideon had noticed! "Uh, G-Gid, I… Sorry."

 

"What are you sorry for? It's so fucking hot. I want to turn you on." He squeezed Will's butt, crushing them close again, practically lifting him off his feet and causing almost excruciatingly good pressure and friction. "Say yes. Be my boyfriend. I don't know if I can just be your friend anymore, I've wanted you for so long."

 

Cold fear prickled Will's gut. Gideon wouldn't be his friend anymore if they weren't… boyfriends? He'd be alone at school, have nowhere to go, no one to talk to… He'd already lost Robot, he couldn't lose Gideon, too…

 

If Gideon just wanted to kiss, that wasn't too bad. When he wasn't reminding Will of Ben, Will liked him… a lot.  

 

All his books had talked about what to do when you like someone, but there hadn't been a chapter on "What to Do When Your Friend Wants to be More and You Think He's Attractive But He Reminds You of His Dead Dad and You Don't Really Know if you Want a Boyfriend Anyway But You Are Terrified of Being Alone."

 

But what was the worst that could happen? He trusted Gideon.

 

And maybe this would fix his problem with Robot. If he was kissing and... and other things… with Gideon, then he wouldn't want to do that to Robot. They could be friends again.

 

"Okay," he whispered, heart fluttering with growing excitement. He had a boyfriend! Based on his books, at least he had a basic idea of what a boyfriend should do. "Yes, I will." He turned his head and found Gideon's cheek with a clumsy kiss.

 

"Oh, shit." Gideon cupped the back of Will's head again and met that first awkward kiss with a hungry, wet mouth and the swipe of tongue.

 

Will flinched away reflexively, uncomfortable with the sudden intrusion, but Gideon didn't let him get far. His strong arms and hands held Will firmly in place and Will didn't know if he should push him away or not. Boyfriends kissed, right? This was okay. 

 

As Will stood, paralyzed and not knowing what to do, Gideon's tongue thrust slowly in and out of his mouth, stroking his teeth and palate. Then it found his own, and the sensation of rough taste buds and slick muscle wrapping around him made him shudder in a mix of discomfort and increasing arousal. When Gideon began to gently suck, Will felt like he was going to pass out as the blood rushed out of his head. His knees turned to water and he clutched Gideon’s shoulders helplessly.

 

When Gideon squeezed his hip and dug his fingers into the muscle of Will’s butt and forced his thigh more firmly between Will's legs, Will couldn't restrain a little gasp. It felt so good, that building tension, but terrifying as his body spun completely out of his control.

 

Like when he was around Robot.

 

He wants this , he reminded himself, clinging to the thought as he clung to Gideon's shirt. He wasn't just rubbing himself against an unsuspecting alien. He wants me. Like this. 

 

He dared to tilt his hips to invite more friction and Gideon broke away.

 

"Shit, shit, shit," he muttered, searching Will's face with pupils so wide his amber irises were bare slivers. "C'mere." He backed up, pulling Will with him, and sank down on his giant green cushion with a squeak from the filling.

 

Will followed and dropped onto Gideon's lap when Gideon gave a hard tug on his arms. Will found himself straddling Gideon's thighs, hyper aware that his groin was pressed against his boyfriend's stomach. 

 

Gideon's hands slid up under Will's new shirt, skimming his ribs, ticklish and exhilarating. Will, becoming more comfortable with the idea, let himself pet Gideon's chest. Even through his shirt, he could feel the rings pierced through his nipples. Fascinated and feeling bold, he toyed with them, and yelped when Gideon growled and flipped their positions.

 

"That'll get you into trouble, mate," he said, burying his face in Will's neck and grinding his weight between Will's legs.

 

"What kind of trouble?" Will asked breathlessly, rising to meet him. Ah, Gideon was as hard as him! The jut of his interest ground with almost painful intensity against Will's, making him dizzy with the very obvious evidence that Gideon really wanted him.

 

"Don't ask me that." Gideon kissed his throat and jaw. "But I'll give you some of your own one day and you'll figure it out for yourself.” 

 

The thought added another layer to his excitement. He wove his fingers into Gideon’s black, spiky hair and tugged on him until he moved up and allowed Will to capture his mouth in a messy kiss. His lips began to chafe, but he didn’t care. He was inebriated and half-suffocating from lack of oxygen to feed his hammering heart and greedy body, and the only time he’d ever felt this heady wildness before, he’d been exploring with Robot--

 

Only when his hips began to jerk of their own volition and he could feel the familiar tingle growing in his belly and legs did he push Gideon away. "Gid," he gasped. "I need to--" Slow down and breathe , he wanted to say. But Gideon cut him off with another hard kiss.

 

"Me, too," he said roughly after a long minute. He reared back on his knees and his long fingers went to the gap where Will's shirt rode up on his stomach, igniting sparks in the bare skin. He didn't look happy, more pensive, a little bit angry. "But if I start, I won't stop, and I need to know something."

 

Will reeled from yet another sharp pivot. "What?" he whispered. 

 

Gideon planted his palms to either side of Will's head. "We're boyfriends now, yeah?"

 

Will nodded.

 

"Then we can talk to each other."

 

He nodded again.

 

"Will," Gideon murmured, those black eyes huge and the cartoon throwing shadows across his face. "What happened to my father?"