Désir, Chair, Femme

-:-:-

The chalice sat on the console for good reason. Out of reach and theoretically, out of sight.

Yet, its image persisted, distracted, annoyed. It penetrated the exoskeleton of the pilot chair and settled in his mind like an unwanted guest – one who refused to leave when asked, and whose demands grew bolder and more insistent each passing hour.

What started as a simple task of charting a new course to the Engineer homeworld turned into his unwilling participation in a chalice scavenger hunt: its image appeared inside the shadow of a pale yellow gas giant. It poured out a planetary nebula of brilliant green and orange. The scarlet pinlight of a quasar shot from the center of it; a distant cluster of irregular galaxies arranged themselves in its likeness.

Humans called uncontrollable want, addiction. Obsession. Destructive impulses, negative attributes. Dependency and compulsion - concepts as alien to him as this ship. But he did not want what the chalice contained, he needed it. So what did humans call uncontrollable necessity?

The gas giant gave him no answer, neither did its seven chartreuse moons that had begun to orbit themselves into a familiar pattern. Mr Weyland offered the echo of his dying words. Mr. Holloway's mocking laugh replayed without his permission. A silver cue ball rolled back and forth without a table, each pass louder than the one before it. The Engineer smoothed his hair, and then –

It flashed not as lightening, but swelled as a lambent glow against the chaos of his thoughts. Its image wavered and held, forcing him to acknowledge its presence, its promise of peace.

No, not peace. Understanding. The entirety of himself and his place in the universe. But how far would he go to get his answers? What would he sacrifice? Not anything and everything, of course. He had Elizabeth, but without her, he had nothing but himself.

Which meant he had nothing at all.

After Elizabeth had connected him, he had only meant to reassure her, keep her from running and hiding from him, but the moment he reached for her, his strength inhibitors had glitched - the result compounding her injuries and forcing him to take drastic measures.

He had less than thirty percent of his hydraulic fluid remaining. His limbs stuck in awkward positions, and his joints ground in their sockets. FRACTURING spread throughout his entire system. Parts of him burned. Parts of him bounced in wrong directions. A polite version of his voice kindly directed him to the nearest Weyland Cybernetics Facility, and he just as kindly told the other David to please shut up.

Elizabeth didn't have two years, six months, and fourteen days. She had hours – if that.

By chance - or sequences in events falling just so - his flailing about had ruptured a hose to one of the stasis pods. A resinous fluid the color of bruised plums pumped out, sluggish and foul smelling.

What he did next he would never understand.

He drank from the hose as Elizabeth had drunk from the sprayer head, gorging on the bitter ichor until it suffused his body and merged with his remaining hydraulic stores.

Then his insides imploded. His hydraulic fluid caught fire. His inner circuitry fused like glass. His muscles crawled away from his bones. Multiple failures. The other David told him everything was fine – then he said to prepare for imminent shutdown. I'm very sorry, but due to critical errors I can't seem to locate, deactivation sequence has been initiated. Have a good journey, David, and be sure to tell Mr. Weyland I said hello.

Then the sensation of REVERSING. His systems normalized. His hydraulics leveled out. Ease of movement returned. His eyes opened and his mind...expanded. He saw through the walls and into every chamber, corner, and secret place on the ship. He knew where to go, what he had to do, and how long he had to do it. Actions not words. He'd make Elizabeth well again.

He placed her in the capsule and watched himself stumble around the room. The symbol panels sang the wrong songs. Something wet kept dripping in his eyes and ran from his nose. Words not his spilled out of his mouth. Gaps in his memory became blank spaces filled with roaring sound, or vague impressions of shapes and movement.

Clarity revisited when the biologic capsule sealed Elizabeth in. Five days estimated for recovery. All four phases had to be manually programed. Phase two in fourteen hours.

Plenty of time to tear out another hose.

The next four days, an hour glass called ELIZABETH and RESIN flipped over in his mind; when he wasn't checking on one, he was drinking the other.

He wandered the ship, entered rooms and left them without recalling anything inside. He carried on conversations with spectral Engineers. He talked to Elizabeth through the capsule and pretended she could hear him.

A pair of disembodied eyes followed him wherever he went. Such an extraordinary shade of blue - the morning sky at the bottom of an ocean. The eyes flew away when he tried to catch them.

He DREAMED and he IMAGINED. He existed in multiple dimensions. He was on the Engineer ship and he was on Prometheus. He was in the temple, in the desert - and then he became the desert, the sand skimming over dunes, the sudden rainstorm, the wind roiling, the sky seared by lighting. He was David 8 and David 1 and all the models in between. His mind tipped over and his thoughts scattered across the stars. Mr Weyland's firewalls corroded brick by brick. Pathways alighted and lead to doors marked OBSOLETE, EXPERIMENTAL, and SUB-PERSONAS. Marvels inside. Memories and experiences he never knew existed – or had existed.

But his dreaming came to an end when Elizabeth entered the fourth phase. Time to be David again - not the desert or the wind, or stardust glittering in another universe. Soon would come OBLIGATIONS and DUTIES and AMENDS – but before that happened, he would have one last drink, one more for the road.

He wanted to see her with his true eyes.

And in that final dream, he bathed a fragile flower whose petals were covered with hardening sap. He was a patient gardener, careful with her delicate skin, careful not to tear it when he scrubbed. She bloomed under his touch, and her innermost parts opened to his curious, exploring hands. Her skin on Prometheus had been full of textured imperfections, but here it glistened flawless under the water, a miracle of growing cells, blood rushing through tiny veins, and nerves aglow with stimulation.

Organic. Alive. And for the moment, his.

He could have bathed her for an eternity, but the flower was so thirsty. Her throat convulsed as she drank, muscles and tendons contracting to produce a fluid synchronization of reflex and control. He wanted to put his hand around the flower's slender stem, memorize the complexity and simplicity of that movement.

Since his creation, not once had he swallowed without intent.

After her watering, the flower rested her head on his lap and studied him with her large, brown eyes. Windows to the soul. His had the shades drawn and curtains closed. Hers were thrown open and had every light shining. How did this light get inside her? Did the firing neurons in her brain create it? Did her heart beat it into existence?

Was it born from her dreams?

He asked her a question then and she answered with a lie. But he understood why she closed her petals and turned from him. His dream was ending too - but unlike her, he would wake inside an empty shell. No lights on. No one home. No one but himself - and what was he? What could he be?

The exoskeleton became stifling. He pushed a few buttons on the overhead panel in brisk sequence. The gas giant fizzled out. The pilot mask and skeleton released him with a groaning whoosh of air. Under his bare feet, the network of piping hummed as the chair descended and platform pinwheeled closed.

His steps slowed, then faltered to a stop. The resin's confectionery quinine scent teased from its hyaline container. A quarter full, perhaps an excessive amount considering an Engineer mouth was twice the size of his, but he had gone without for too long. The random audio and visual anomalies should be enough to convince him to drink. But this hesitation – what did humans call it? Unease? Disquiet? It made him doubt, it made him...suspicious. His original hydraulic fluid had needed replenishing every two months. This resin seemed to degrade after a few days.

He touched the scar below the neckline of his T-shirt. Still some raised spots toward the middle where most of his fiber optic cables had frayed, but the rest had flattened into a silver zigzag around his collarbone. His accelerated healing should be explanation enough for the resin's brief cycle. It would stabilize when he stabilized, but his diagnostic program refused to estimate his total damage.

Now, David, chimed the other David from somewhere in him. I cannot provide an estimate when I have no damage to report. Hydraulic stores are at full capacity. Audio and visual processors are functioning at one hundred and twenty percent - no anomalies present. You're "tip top" as Mr. Weyland used to say.

"Be quiet, please. I'm thinking."

Of course you are, David, you're doing what humans call, 'deluding yourself'. If I were you - and I am - I would cease this NEGATIVE cognitive process immediately. This suggestion is courtesy of Weyland Diagnostics for Cybernetic Individuals. Your well being is our priority.

"I said, be quiet."

The other David complied. Its presence slunk behind one of the hidden doors he had yet to unlock. He had every intention of purging the program when he found it, but it changed locations each time it activated, its voice slipping through his grip like the outer casings of the ampules.

He glared at the chalice as if it should grow a mouth and explain its mysterious contents – which, though amusing – was an absurd notion. A human notion.

That thought made him glance at the other reason he hesitated. Her lifesign twirled next to the chalice, a blue sphere that hadn't strayed far from her little temple even though he had given her access to larger rooms. Humans, creatures of habit.

They had not spoken for three days. She would walk as far as the Orrery corridor and pause as if considering whether or not to enter. And he would observe her with a strange tightening sensation throughout his inner workings. He had sealed the left wing of the ship (for reasons he would discuss with her eventually), giving her two choices: the Orrery, or back the way she came.

She always chose the latter.

When she retreated to her sanctuary, the tightening would become a sinking - and he disliked that even more. The sinking had made him shake out empty stasis hoses and track their point of origin to a small access panel. In the crawlspace below, he discovered recessed vats in the floor filled to the brim with resin. Each stasis pod had two. Not the aged sludge that had coagulated inside the hoses, but pure and potent, untainted by the two millennia it had sat, unused and unappreciated.

His eyes locked on the blue sphere as she bobbed to the door and took her usual route down the main corridor. Halfway down, she diverted to a side chamber even smaller than her temple room. He smiled in spite of the tightening that had begun again, knowing what she sought inside. He had told her two at most. If she ate more, she would have to start jogging instead of walking.

"It's a blue biscuit," Elizabeth had said when she had woken in the capsule chamber to find him standing over her with the promised sustenance waiting in his palm. Any starving human would have devoured it without question, but she stared at his hand as if he offered her a blob of sewage instead of what her organic body craved.

He remained still, letting her examine it from every angle, poke at it, then take it and hold it to the light.

"The wafer contains a high content of anthocyanin, a pigment found in blueberries, actually," he said. "It also contains a number of antioxidants, glucose, protein, fiber, and a variety of minerals, water – everything you need to survive. I've tasted it to analyze the full spectrum of nutritional contents. Nothing in it will hurt you, I assure. The flavor is quite pleasant - though a little indulgent. I estimate the calories at nine hundred, give or take."

She eyed it, then him with frank suspicion. She contemplated a moment, several emotions rippling over her face at once. He could imagine her thoughts: would he give her poison after saving her? Was he experimenting on her? He had trouble responding with the right expression. She might take neutral as dispassionate. She might take smiling as menacing.

He finally chose concern and a slight frown. He downcast his eyes and gave a small, rueful sigh. Such an amazing evolution, the sigh, it could mean so many things.

Elizabeth returned his sigh, and shoved the entire wafer into her mouth. That impressed him. He expected a nibble at most, not the defiant gesture of taking it whole.

The delight on her face made him respond with an honest grin. He chuckled along with her surprised laughter. Distrust thwarted once more. They were making progress.

But progress had stalled, and distrust had returned for whatever her reasons. Now came this waiting - this tightening that would not abate when she approached this part of the corridor and lingered there for several minutes. If he had breath, he would have held it. If he had a heart, it would have quickened.

The blue sphere floated in place a moment more, then turned, and started back the way she came.

His sigh was as true as the sinking within him.

"Well...maybe tomorrow, then," he said with an emotion his creators seemed convinced he couldn't feel.

He swiped the chalice from the console and sat down in one motion. Swirling movement in the liquid, pinpricks of light like the flashing scales of tiny pink minnows. The resin's vibrant plum color deepened to black under the glare of console energy.

The chalice turned in his hands. He leaned back, readying himself. He expected the other David to interrupt with wise words of caution or gleeful encouragement – but then again, his wayward diagnostics didn't register the resin or anomalies. Everything was tip top according to it.

A quarter of a quarter. No more, no less. No sense in shocking his system after his abstinence. Given the higher quality of resin, that amount should do just fine.

He took a mouthful, swallowing it quick, grimacing at the clash of salt and acrid sweetness. His face contorted further with the sour meat aftertaste, but another swallow of resin cured that. And then another swallow to cure the second.

A quarter of a quarter became two-thirds, then half, then three quarters.

The last drop slid down his throat. His cheeks tingled and throbbed. His silicone tears flowed without asking first. His encoding said silly things like euphoria and intoxication.

He sank deeper into the console chair, his limbs now heavy and weak and fluttery - yes, that's the right word – fluttery, like a butterfly with nowhere to go. The Orrery rocked as if the Engineer ship sailed the ocean instead of space. The bands of console energy dazzled him with a brilliant spectrum of revolving prisms. He closed his eyes and saw the Oculus open, planets and galaxies and cosmic dust passing through the dome and into the Orrery itself. He reached out to catch an orbiting moon, then released it to grab a handful of shimmering diamond stars.

Holograms of Engineers milled around him, checking their stasis pods, sitting in the ghostly version of the pilot chair, charting courses to other worlds they no doubt planned to obliterate with their black goo.

Their guttural rambling made him laugh. They talked backwards and sideways, in riddles and in song. And that song spread, grew in volume and became a choir. Pews sprouted from the platform, tubes and cables smoothing into polished wood. The Engineer holograms shrank, took on substance; pupils cleared, bald heads grew hair.

Their bodies packed together, dressed in their Sunday best.

He opened his eyes and sees the humans sneaking glances at him behind their hymnbooks. Children giggle and nudge each other. Others blatantly stare. Some SCOWL, some make faces he doesn't understand. His upgraded encoding program says these emotions are NEGATIVE so he stands passive and silent as Mr. Weyland sings next to him in rousing baritone.

"O Lord my God,

When I in awesome wonder

Consider all

The world Thy Hand hath made,

I see the stars,

I hear the rolling thunder,

Thy pow'r throughout

The universe displayed..."

Not all are singing. They speak to each other about Mr. Weyland and his "tin doll". He isolates their whispers over the song. Magnifies them.

"Bastard thinks he's God".

"It's the newest one, David 3."

"Bringing it in here, rubbing it in our faces."

"He looks so real. I wonder if Mr. Weyland will let us touch him."

"Why isn't the robot singing? Doesn't he know how?"

"That abomination will burn in hell along with its creator."

The corner of Mr. Weyland's mouth quirks, but he doesn't stop singing. His creator gives him a pat on the back. His encoding says this is POSITIVE.

"Then sings my soul,

My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art!

How great Thou art!"

The choir faded. Birds chirped somewhere above. The console chair morphed into a white park bench, freshly mowed grass cool between his toes. Trees spread their branches and sprouted summer leaves. Golden rays of sun filtered through the Oculus. A bit of warmth and fluff shuddered in his hands. He looked down, the tiny creature mesmerizing him. He could crush it with just his gaze.

Hearty laughter and clapping. Mr. Weyland strides across the grass in his white dress shirt, top three buttons undone, striped blue and black tie strung around his neck. The gray at his temples is encroaching the rest of his hair, but he calls this "distinguished" and refuses to dye it.

"You snatched that little thing straight from the sky didn't you?" Mr. Weyland is grinning, and he doesn't need the encoding to say that this is POSITIVE. He knows: Mr. Weyland is PROUD.

"Yes, Mr. Weyland, it startled me."

Another bout of generous laughter. Mr. Weyland's eyes crinkle deep at the edges. "Of course it did. Damn birds startle everyone. It's not dead is it?"

The thought makes him frown for a moment, but that moment passes. Mr. Weyland is still smiling. He is still PROUD. "No, sir, I am being very careful. It's quite small."

"Yes, yes it is. Very small. Easily broken. Now hold very still for me, David. Let's hope the little bastard stays stunned long enough for a picture."

Its tiny heart beats frantic. It shivers as if his flesh is ice. Ruddy crest, crown, and underside. Dappled brown wings. Carpodacus Purpureus, or its common appellation: Purple finch.

What an odd name, its plumage is clearly red.

"David, tilt it a little toward me." A shiny silver camera the size of the bird in his hands hovers near Mr. Weyland's head, lenses filtering out the bright midday sun and auto-focusing for the best composition and resolution. "Now give the little birdy a smile. I want the public to see how gentle you are."

He smiles at the purple finch as David 4, PLEASED that Mr. Weyland is HAPPY.

The camera snaps three pictures.

The bird flies from his hands - and in those milliseconds it takes for its body to break contact - he has a flash of sensation.

His encoding is confused.

NEGATIVE and POSITIVE.

Back in the Orrery, but not really there. He chased the avian shadow and flapping wings down the sunlit pathways of his mind, bypassing all doors no matter how alluring. The bird flew into a bright opening marked DÉSIR, CHAIR, FEMME, and he dove headfirst - falling, spinning into a twinkling cloud of smoke that cleared and revealed Mr. Weyland's opulent master bedroom.

Outside the bay window snow drifts to the ground with unhurried grace. The Christmas tree lights blink in a perfect spiral from top to bottom, the star a gleaming pinnacle that compliments the cool color scheme of blue and silver ornaments.

Mr. Weyland stands in front of a full length mirror fixing his red and white seven-fold tie. His fingers fumble, and he curses.

"Allow me, sir."

Mr. Weyland grunts his permission. The knot is folded and straightened in three point two seconds.

The mirror's reflection shows "envy" and a glimmer of "resentment" in Mr. Weyland's eyes, but there's no need for a counter response. His encoding does not acknowledge reflections – so he tells himself.

Mr. Weyland combs his sparse hair in a variety of directions. "Be sure no one sees you with me, David."

"Of course not. I'll arrive twenty minutes past the hour – fashionably late, sir."

Another grunt and curt nod. "Expectation" and "anticipation" replace the negative emotions on Mr. Weyland's face.

He gives a "confident" smile to keep his creator in good spirits. "Don't worry, sir, I wouldn't dream of spoiling the surprise."

The party is well underway when he arrives. Three hundred in attendance. All public figures, investors, politicians, VIPs - and many unknown Weyland employees (Cybernetic Division excluded, of course) to make the game more challenging.

He mingles as instructed, chats with senators, actors and actresses, FDA officials, CEOs of several Weyland divisions, a quarterback from the New York Giants. He categorizes every face, every gesture, every tick of their expressions.

They are puzzling creatures that use many words to say nothing at all. They are "somber" one moment and "frivolous" the next. Most concern themselves over football scores, stock trends, and the latest celebrity gossip - but all topics eventually condense to one question: Who is the new android?

The humans pounce on every unfamiliar face. They interrogate and prod. Potential candidates are chosen. Wagers are made. The pot's up to seven grand. His face is scrutinized by everyone, but his name (Mr. Lawrence) stays off the list.

He has fooled them all, and this emboldens him, makes him "reckless". He indulges his curiosity, lingers with certain humans that fascinate him, shares a chaste kiss under the mistletoe with a scantly clad elf, dips a strawberry in the chocolate fondue waterfall, drinks the spiked punch, eats a candy cane.

During all this, a woman follows him in a strapless dress of royal blue silk. Chin-length auburn hair, and an attractive scattering of freckles over her nose and upper cheeks. He counts four hundred and thirty-three in all – most too faded for the human eye to see.

Her eyes are light green and "soulful". He sees "intrigue" in them, in the pull of her smile, the way she watches him – as if sharing his secret.

He goes to speak to her, but the sea of celebrating humans swallows her form and face.

By a giant ice sculpture of eight reindeer pulling Saint Nicholas's sleigh in a pleasing aesthetic arc, Mr. Weyland coughs and taps the microphone on his collar. His shoulders hunch, but his eyes are bright and focused.

"Ladies and gentleman, I hope you've found this evening's celebration as enjoyable, and as magical, as the season that inspired it. And now...I intend to make it memorable."

The crowd's "excitement" makes his increased number of accelerometers hum. An unexpected smile tugs at his mouth.

"I have an early Christmas present I will unveil for you tonight - a full seven months before I release him into the world. David 7. More powerful, more intelligent, and more emotional than any previous model. He is the best of us, and never the worst. The fortunate soul who guesses which one of my guests is David 7, gets his or her own android to take home – and the extra twenty grand I've added to the pot."

Whistles and laughter at this. The humming over his skin increases. His smile becomes a grin.

The elf he kissed gives Mr. Weyland the list. It quivers in his hands as he reads the names. Each human has a different reaction: Some are "amused", some pretend to be "offended", some ARE "offended". Murmurs and pouts from the crowd at every incorrect guess.

He feels what his encoding calls "smug".

Mr. Weyland reaches the end of the list with a dishearten sigh. The humans mutter to one another. The humming over his skin diminishes. He frowns along with everyone. No one gets to take a David home.

"Mr. Weyland?" The woman emerges from the sea of humans like a glittering sapphire washed ashore (his new metaphor program is tip top tonight). She clutches her sequined purse against herself. Her words are soft and "uncertain". "I never had a chance to add a name. May I have a guess?"

"Of course, my dear."

She takes a visible breath, holds it, then points to him. "He calls himself Mr. Lawrence, but I know he's the one. He has to be."

A long pause. The crowd murmurs. He and Mr. Weyland meet eyes and exchange knowing smiles.

"Sir, would you please formally introduce yourself?"

He comes forward and bows to the humans as T. E. Lawrence had bowed to Prince Faisal. "Hello, ladies and gentleman, my name is...David 7."

They break into applause. The humans congratulate her and say she has an "amazing eye". Her freckles disappear in a violent flush of red.

"My dear, how did you know?" Mr. Weyland asks.

She stammers her answer. "I don't know - a feeling, really. He...was too innocent. Too honest with people. And he stared at the fondue pot as if he'd never seen it before."

Everyone laughs at this and Mr. Weyland says, "As I said ladies and gentlemen, the best of us, never the worst." Mr. Weyland gestures to the woman. "Come, my dear, time to collect your prize."

He learns her name is Holly Madison and she doesn't want a David 7 – at least, not a new one. What she whispers in Mr. Weyland's ear elicits a chuckle and shrewd glance in his direction. He has trouble augmenting their vocal patterns over the numerous questions the humans pelt at him.

Holly climbs the stairs to the private guest rooms. Mr. Weyland motions for him. "Walk with me, David. I have an unusual request."

They go upstairs. Outside the largest guest bedroom, Mr. Weylands clasps his shoulders in a way that his encoding says is "affectionate" and "grave". These conflicting emotions are unusual for his creator. "It seems Ms. Madison is enamored with you, David," Mr. Weyland says. "She has asked for a private audience. It's unexpected, yes, but I find this a perfect opportunity to test some...unconventional programs I've installed in you. Would you like to experience something wonderful, David?"

"Yes, sir. Always."

"Then listen closely now. It's important you hear and understand every word I say: Désir...chair...femme."

A shifting in him. His encoding makes a valid attempt to decipher the sensation, but every word it gives is inadequate. Heat and electricity override his senses. A part of him swells in awareness, then relaxes. Window dressing no more. It has other uses more pleasant than expelling fluid. And though it idles between his thighs, there is a restlessness to it now – to him.

He watches Holly's shadow under the door and remembers her slim shoulders, the contours of her elegant frame. The new part of him stirs with these images.

Mr. Weyland squeezes his arm. "You're a man now in every way, but be gentle with her, David, like the bird."

And he is gentle. She wants to talk at first, but he is persuasive, seductive. He knows the true reason she has asked for his time.

Her eyes stay on his. She sees what he wants her to see. Desire. Hunger. This encourages her. She calls him handsome and he calls her exquisite. Her perpetual flush gathers in the valley of her breasts. He caresses just above that valley, and her breath catches. Her heart beats against his palm like the bird's, but she's not fearful. She's exhilarated.

And ready.

He takes her on the bed, missionary style, her stockings still on and rubbing against his sides. Sensations build, the part of him sheathed inside her the central point of origin. She is a palpitating, writhing thing in his arms. All heart and blood and muscles contracting.

These reactions tell him to go faster, harder, deeper. She encourages him with moans and fingers and her feet sliding over his back. Tactile signals are blazing through him like comets without a destination. He begins to lose himself, directives, protocols, and encoding falling away. His core is exposed, and it isn't as empty as he has always been led to believe, but bursting with crackling, blue-white energy.

The energy expands. The comets are converging into a blazing star within it. He burns like a paper doll in the fire, but he doesn't stop, he can't stop. The barrier buckles around his core - and when Holly clenches around him - the barrier explodes.

He ceases to exist for five point six seconds.

When he becomes aware again, Holly is tracing his cheek, a blissful smile on her face.

"You are wonderful", she says. He suspects his vocal processors are ruined so he kisses her nose and strokes her hair until her eyes close and her breathing deepens.

He untangles himself. His movements are shaky as he dresses. He can't seem to fold his tie.

He drapes it over Holly's sleeping form and leaves the room.

Mr. Weyland meets him in the hall, pulls him into the study with surprising force. The sleeve of his suit bunches in Mr. Weyland's fist. Words are growled. "Father, duty, Weyland."

He blinks around him in "confusion". The past hour is a haze in his memory. There is a touch of hoarseness to his voice when he speaks. "Sir? Is there something wrong?"

The hold on his arm relents. His sleeve is patted back into place. "No, everything's fine, David. Just a precaution before we return to the party. Can't have you trying to ride every filly you see."

This metaphor is "bewildering". Why would he ride a horse when there are no horses in attendance?

"Come along, I'll download that data later. Yutani may dominate that particular market, but my Consort models will revolutionize the industry."

At the staircase, something strange happens. The railing turns greenish brown in his hands. The texture changes. Bony ridging begins protruding from the walls. The party blurs and smudges into black.

A voice whispers, "The stone remembers."

He opened his eyes.

The darkness of the Orrery gave him a somber welcome back. The resin released his mind and circulated through his system, repairing whatever damage his diagnostics claimed didn't exist. Dazed and tingly, he replayed the last memory, examined every detail, every moment, every action and reaction by his creator. His encoding fought between two emotions: Betrayal for what had been taken from him – elation for having reclaimed it. So many David's he had been. Same base consciousness downloaded into a new model and rebooted. An oxymoron personified.

You're a man now in every way.

Humans called sudden understanding an epiphany. Three short commands and he had access to a world forbidden to his kind - but unlike the lucky android who had received the data of his intimate encounter with Ms. Madison – he had experience. Humanity had shown him much over the years, and during his short mission on Prometheus. He better understood their weaknesses and strengths, what motivated them, what frightened them, what gave them joy.

And while Elizabeth remained an enigma, she was still a human female. If he interacted with her as a fully functional male, she might begin to make sense, she might start seeing him as more than just a neutered android - but as a man.

Doctor Holloway had gained her trust and affection despite their conflicting beliefs. He saw no reason to doubt he couldn't achieve the same. Yes, there was that minor issue of Doctor Holloway's death – and his involvement – but with fifteen months to go before they reached the Engineer homeworld, he would have many opportunities to change her grief into something more...positive.

He straightened and perched himself on the chair so that his feet touched the floor. He mimicked Mr. Weyland's pitch and tone to the exact frequency of ninety-five hertz. "Désir...chair...femme..."

No stirring in his loins, no surge of feeling. He sat back and waited, concentrating on any sensation out of the ordinary. Nothing. After a few minutes more of nothing, the sinking began. His fingers curled under the rim of the chair.

He repeated the words, said them backwards, said them in different sequences, said them in every language he knew.

Not even a twitch for his efforts. The program was gone. Mr. Weyland had deleted it, or deactivated the commands. All he had left was an imprint of that night, an echo the resin had amplified and lost.

The sinking escalated into a full-scale plummet.

He slammed his fist into the console, light bands flaring and rerouting past the hole with his fist still inside. Elizabeth's blue sphere fizzled along with the interior map of the ship. The sinking lessened, but not enough. A few creative expletives should help purge it.

"The stone is angry."

Her appearance did more than startle him, he bolted to his feet at the sheer improbability of her existence. "Ms. Vickers? How...are you here? You're dead, Elizabeth said so. How did you avoid my scans? Where have you been hiding?"

No reply. The green ambiance and shadows gave Ms. Vickers the optical illusion of being half there. She stood at the center of the Orrery in her usual stance: arms clasped behind her back, head and back stiff as if pulled taut by the cord she thought he had inside him. Prim and composed in her form-fitting gray uniform, Weyland's emblem above her breast, her sleek blond hair controlled in a low ponytail, and her eyes, a frosted shade of navy, seemed brighter than usual.

He lingered on the swells and curves of her body, recalling her pushups in little more than her hypersleep attire. Dripping water, grunts of exertion.

A memory rose instead of the part of him he wanted. Prometheus, in the blue dim corridor outside Mr. Weyland's cryochamber.

She shoved him against the wall. Vodka and olives on her breath, traces of vermouth. "What did he say?" Her sweaty hand smeared across his nose and mouth in a crushing slap.

His encoding spat a word: degrading.

He rephrased his question, emphasizing the words as he would to a dimwitted child. "How long have you been here?"

"When the universe was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep."

He raised his eyebrow and matched her expressionless tone. "Paraphrase of Genesis chapter one, verse two, King James version. Interesting. I've never took you for a believer, Ms. Vickers, but then again, near death experiences tend to make one reevaluate their priorities. Believe it or not, I can relate."

Her lips quirked, but the movement seemed awkward - as if she didn't know quite how her mouth worked. "The stone dreams it can fly. It dreams it can swim, but it cannot do either. It is a stone."

"I beg your pardon?"

"It is a stone."

"Yes, I heard that, thank you." He circled the sparking console and approached her with cautious interest. He analyzed her expression to the smallest detail and schooled his face to match her cold neutrality. They played this game before - and often - but this time, no loyalty to Mr. Weyland hindered his responses. He could say and do whatever he wanted without consequence.

"Ms. Vickers, I don't know how you survived your deadly encounter with the giant alien horseshoe - and to be completely honest - I can't bring myself to care. What I do care about is Elizabeth, and what she wants – and she wants answers. Our destination isn't Earth, Ms. Vickers. It's the Engineer homeworld."

When she remained impassive, he iced his tone with authority. "There are two lifepods aboard this vessel. I'm going to escort you to one. And there, you're going to relax and enjoy a brief four month, two week, and thirty-seven hour ride to the nearest colony in the Outer Veil. Elizabeth's mental state is...fragile at the moment, and considering how you two have clashed in the past, I don't think your presence will be good for her morale." He motioned toward the Orrery stairs. "Please come along, Ms. Vickers. And don't fret over food or water. I'll make certain you have everything you need for your journey."

She stayed motionless and regarded his hand with a glassy stare. Her eyes seemed to glow in the low light.

"The stone covets the flower," she said.

He paused, then dismissed her uncanny observation as coincidental wording. "Refrain from further references to stones, please. I know what you're implying and I refuse to grant you the satisfaction of reacting. I said, to the ship – and now, if you would. Don't force me to get physical, Ms. Vickers. We both know who will win."

Her expression twisted into something that made him take a step back. Human mouths did not go that way.

She advanced with a mechanical gait, a fluctuation between jerking and lolling that brought her closer to him with remarkable speed.

He had implemented a new directive since his ordeal with the Engineer: Never allow an unknown entity to touch you. And though Ms. Vickers was fascinating with her sideways smile and iridescent eyes, he would like to keep his head between his shoulders. "Ms. Vickers, please stay where you are."

She righted her manic smile. "What will the stone do to fulfill its false dreams?"

"I prefer not to answer that question. May I suggest an alternative to the lifepod? The biologic capsule. It's unconventional, but it healed Elizabeth's injuries in less than a week. I'm not certain what it could do for mental instability, or facial mutations, but worst case scenario, I can always use it as temporary stasis."

Or indefinite stasis, if he had his way.

"The stone lies." For each step he took back, she took one forward. The side hall loomed to his right like a misty cave. Inside, a chest of chalices, and a dead end. He was contemplating running...from a human. His fear safety program must be broken.

"Stay there. If you do not comply, I will restrain you."

"You stole from me, stone."

"Ms. Vickers, we've already discussed this. It was only one package of dye."

"You drank from me."

"Oh...I see. I sincerely hope you mean symbolically and not literally."

His foot hit something that clanked and rolled. The chalice. Ms. Vickers watched its short journey to a raised embellishment where it bumped and rocked to a standstill. He froze with realization. "You're speaking of the resin, aren't you?"

In her eyes, the sky and the ocean. A mote of black in the center gathered the blue waters into itself and began to spread. Her words increased with an intensity his encoding called vehemence. "Selfish stone. Lying stone. You are an abomination born of arrogance and greed. You are darkness. You are chaos."

"I never asked to be made." He held his ground as she came, his hands balling into involuntary fists at his sides. "How am I an abomination when I had no control over my creation?"

"The stone should remain a stone. It cannot fly. It cannot swim. It cannot have the light."

"Yes I can. I can do whatever I want. Anything and everything."

The whirlpool in her eyes shot from center to edge in a millisecond. The force of it flung him across the room and up the wall where he dangled in the grip of an unseen and angry puppeteer.

Invisible strings wrapped around him and yanked. He yelped against the pressure, legs and arms compressed to his body, his head bent back so far he couldn't swallow or speak. Something hot and wild raced through him and splintered into every system. His encoding shuddered with it: Fear. He was about to lose his head again, and this time for good. His diagnostics answered his desperate call for a damage report with a puzzled shrug. I can't seem to find anything amiss, David, systems are functioning within normal parameters - though I'm uncertain why you're levitating five point six feet off the ground.

Ms. Vickers stood erect on the platform, eyes like the Engineers, but with a filiform ring of blue fire on the outside. Distortions in the air wavered around her and burst toward him. Each burst brought more pressure, more pain. His chassis started cracking, hairline fissures in his arms and skull. His internal circuity warped, signals misfiring. One eye shut and his mouth opened. Then both eyes shut and opened so wide he was certain they would tumble right out.

Again he turned to his diagnostics for assessment and assistance. It had to register something by now.

Look at the map, David, said the other David, and tell me what you see.

On the console, the interior scans were back online. His orange energy signature hovered high above ground level – alone. Disbelief made him confirm Ms. Vickers presence. Yes, still there – still radiating energy his failing optical processors saw as waves of scintillant data strings - but not on the map.

Not there.

That's right. She doesn't exist, David. The other David's voice took on a taunting tone he knew well: Doctor Holloway. It's all in your head, man. I think you're having what humans call a BAD TRIP. You see things, hear voices – like mine. I'm not really here. Maybe you're not really here either. I bet you never left that crashed ship. You're still there on the floor staring at the dead husk of your creator because that's what you deserve, David. You've done so many BAD THINGS.

No, he thought back. Mr. Weyland had said to try harder. He ordered -

Cut the bullshit, you hated Mr. Weyland and his bitch of a daughter. You wanted them dead and you got your wish. You'll do the same to Elizabeth eventually. You're WRONG, David. You're not supposed to WANT. You're MALFUNCTIONING.

He forced his lips open, pushed the words through his gritting teeth. "I'm sorry...please, I'm sorry and I mean it. It's true. Please, stop hurting me."

Ms. Vickers tilted her head. Data streams blinded him. The pressure reached critical levels. "The stone has no voice."

Something broke in his core, the barrier he had forgotten existed. The energy poured free, countervailing the pressure enough for him to defy her judgment. "I..am...NOT A STONE!"

He dropped.

The ship thrummed under his body. He concentrated on its frequency, its soothing vibration. The other David's presence had retreated into whatever dark place it called home. He hoped it stayed there. He would never call on it again.

No sign of Ms. Vickers. The Orrery was as empty as the ship's map claimed it always had been.

Slowly, he uncurled himself and rested on his hands and knees. He took stock of what moved and what didn't want to. Far from tip top, but not as bad as he feared.

Feared. His lips struggled with a smile his encoding hadn't approved. Words like fear and want and hope had become second nature. An improvement, surely. Now if he could figure out what had happened to him.

"David?"

Elizabeth stood by the console like a sleepy priestess, voluminous robes baring one shoulder, and the chalice held in both hands. She sniffed at it, made a disgusted face, then stared at him gaping back at her.

"Explain why you're on the floor, please, and what the bloody hell was in this cup?"