Laurian, age 8
The chair in Dr. Ciker’s office was too hard, and Laurian had to fight to keep from fidgeting. He wished they’d let him bring his scrib so he could draw, but Momma had said this was an important meeting, and he should leave it at home. But he was here now and no one seemed to even remember he was in the room
“The sad fact is,” Dr. Ciker was saying, “There’s nothing medically wrong with your son. All the tests come back well within normal parameters for his typing.”
“But he won’t talk,” Papa said, voice hard. Papa’s voice was always hard these days.
“Do you think…” Momma said her voice was soft, but slightly quavering. She was probably going to start crying soon. She cried a lot these days. “Maybe a different tutor? Or a gene tweak?”
The doctor shook his head. “He’s been seeing vocal coaches since he was three with very little progress. And as I said, there’s nothing genetically wrong to be tweaks.” His expression was one of sympathy. “I think we may need to admit he’s a misfit.”
Laurian knew that word, and he braced himself for what he knew was going to come next. Sure enough, Papa exploded out of his chair, yelling about how no son of his could possibly be a misfit, and Momma burst into tears. Laurian hunched in on himself and squeezed his eyes shut as tight as possible. Maybe if he pretended really, really hard this would all just be over.
It wasn’t over, not for hours, but finally they left the office, still without anyone having ever talked directly to him. That didn’t happen until later that night right before bedtime when Momma pulled him aside and crouched down to meet his gaze like she always did when something was really, really important.
“You know we love you, right?” she said, her eyes still slightly red and puffy from crying. “Me and your father and your brother and sister, we all love you.”
Laurian knew that Momma loved him, and while Marcus teased him all the time at home, when kids at school started to say things, he always jumped in to defend his younger brother. Angie probably loved him too, even though she was usually away at her big school, finishing her classes to be an important scientist. But Papa… Papa hadn’t even looked at him since they’d come home from Dr. Ciker’s office. But he knew that Momma didn’t want him to talk about that right now. So instead he nodded.
A frown briefly crossed Momma’s face, and Laurian wondered if he should have tried to say ‘yes’ out loud. But the frown faded and she smiled, though sadly. “We love you no matter what, but something went wrong when they made you, and so you’re… different.” She said this as if it was supposed to be news to him. But he’d known he was different for as long as he could remember. Other kids didn’t have problems talking like he did. Words just flowed out of them like water.
Momma continued, “Well, because you’re different, we are going to have to send you to a special school. For kids… like you. I know we told you you were going to be a politician like Papa when you grew up, but the doctor says this will be much better for you. The tutors there are specially trained to help with your kind of… problems, and they can train you for a different job.” She was trying to sound cheerful, but her eyes were wet, and Laurian was pretty sure she was going to start crying again any moment.
He licked his lips and took a deep breath. He didn’t want Momma to cry so he forced his mouth around words. “Th-that… s-soun… s-sounds…” He paused, frustrated with himself. Why couldn’t he just talk like other kids? “F-fun” he managed to finish.
Momma nodded, “Yes, yes I am sure it will be. But this school is like Angie’s school - you will live there and only come home on special breaks. Do you understand?”
Laurian nodded again. He understood. He understood that they were sending him away because something was wrong with him. But that might be better than having to constantly fight with his own rebellious mouth and tongue to force out words that always felt thick and sour. Maybe there the other kids wouldn’t tease him constantly. And he wouldn’t have to see Papa’s disappointment and anger at something that Laurian couldn’t control.
Maybe there they’d let him draw more.
Laurien, age 17
A drone transport sped him out, out from the city that had always been his home and across an ocean that seemed to go on forever. Laurian watched out the ship’s tiny window as the blue water stretched below. He loved water. It was calming, and helped quiet the jumble of thoughts chattering in his brain all the time recently. He was being posted to his first assignment, as an assistant overseer at a smelting factory on what his teachers called the junk side of the planet. They all assured him and the other students that this was a very important job, but they all knew that it was make-work. A way to get the misfits out of sight of the real people, the people who’d genetic patterning had worked out correctly and who slotted in to society exactly as they were supposed to. The factories probably could run just fine with an artificial intelligence overseer - they didn’t need an actual human. But their society hated to waste anything, even its misfits.
It hadn’t taken nine years to train him to do the job he was being sent out here to do. The actual training had barely taken a year if you smooshed it all together and stripped out all the flowery language and justifications the teachers had used. Most of the time had just been busy work, stuff they said was important but that all of them figured out pretty quickly was just stuff to pass the time until the teachers and whatever other adults thought up their program considered them old enough to work. Or figured they were old enough no one else, no one ‘normal’, would object to them working. An AI could do what he’d be doing, and probably better. But then what would they have done with him, or those like him?
Out the window, the water rushing below the skiff darkened, turning from blue to gray and then to a sickly orange. By the time land was in sight the water was a sickly brown color, thick and sluggish as it lapped against ground covered in… junk. There was no more specific word for it. Just piles and piles of trash and broken bits of… well, everything. Just junk in rolling hills as far as the eye could see. This was a place for everything the rest of the planet threw away. Or course they sent the misfits here.
Laurian, age 20
He stood on the tiny balcony of his tower, watching as Jane hiked over the junk hills, back the way she’d come, dragging her cart loaded with algae tanks. She moved with purpose, though he could see that she was slower than she’d been the last few times she’d come. He hoped nothing was wrong with her or her ship.
Her ship. The ship that, if this worked, would carry both of them away from here into some unknown universe. The thought scared him. The thought thrilled him. He’d assumed he’d never see anything beyond his little suite of rooms, much less anything off planet. Even just that part of it was hard to wrap his mind around. He had a general idea of what existed beyond this world, but the only thing any of the teachers or other adults had said was that it was a hostile place that didn’t appreciate how wonderful things were here. Well they weren’t wonderful for people like him, and they were even less wonderful for people like Jane. Their so-called wonderful society was plenty hostile to him and Jane, so the galaxy could hardly be worse.
At least, he hoped not. Fear and excitement in equal measure. He kept trying to put it down on paper in some sort of drawing, but it kept coming out just as swirls and scribbles of color, nothing he was happy with. He’d wasted nearly half a pad of paper trying, which normally would have had him fretting since he only got new luxuries like paper once a year, but now he didn’t care. He’d be gone from here, and not like the overseers who lost it and wandered out into the wastes. He’d be somewhere far, far away with someone who didn’t care that he didn’t speak much, who seemed to understand him better than anyone else.
That thought made the excitement and hope swell over the fear. He liked Jane. Liked her more than he could remember liking anyone in a long, long time. Maybe it was because she was an escaped factory girl, but she didn’t treat him like a freak, the way that even his fellow students in the misfit school had. She was perfectly happy to carry the bulk of any conversation, and was more patient with his speech issues than anyone he’d ever met. Even though she’d invaded his home, and threatened him at gunpoint, the moment she’d mentioned she was trying to leave the planet he’d wanted to go too. Anywhere was better than here, especially with her.
Laurian, age 20
The Harmagian ship was very much not designed with the comfort of humans in mind. But at least here people weren’t constantly peppering him with questions and making him fill out endless forms in a language he barely understood. Owl had tried to give him a crash course in Klip while they’d been traveling, but that had only been a little over three tendays, and he’d barely mastered more than the basics. Thankfully Jane, wonderful, patient Jane was always at his side to translate and keep him from having to try to talk. Well, almost always. Right now she was over in the ship’s med bay with her new Laru friend trying to convince the ship’s doctor to allow her to have something more than bland porridge to eat. He couldn’t blame her, and he had his scrib and stylus to keep himself entertained. He was currently working on a drawing of Jane that he hoped to surprise her with before the end of this trip.
He was so engrossed in his work he didn’t notice the one of the ship’s mech techs approaching until she spoke.
“You draw?” she said, speaking slowly and clearly, obviously aware of Laurian’s poor grasp of Klip.
Laurian nodded, and then remembered that Harmagians didn’t usually understand human gestures. “Y…yes” he said, hating how thick his accent sounded.
“It’s good,” the mech tech said, flexing his tendrils in a way that was as incomprehensible to Laurian as his nod probably had been. “You are good. Very good” she continued.
Laurian smiled, unsure where this conversation was going. She was being very nice, keeping her words simple and slow so he could understand them, but why was she speaking to him in the first place? “Th…th…thank you” he managed to get out.
There was a long pause, and Laurian almost turned his attention back to the piece he was working on when she spoke again. “You could draw,” she paused and pointed to herself. “Me? I have credits. To pay.” She held up her wrist patch and made another gesture with her tendrils.
Laurian blinked. And then blinked again. This strange alien wanted him to… draw her? For money? Owl had said people did that sometimes, but he’d never considered anyone would want his work. Both Jane and Owl had said that he was very talented, but he wasn’t sure. He knew he was nowhere near as good as the artists back home were, genetweeked as they were for optimal skill and focus. That thought brought a weird stab of regret. Maybe if that had been what he’d been designed for, they wouldn’t have thought him a freak. But then he would never have met Jane and that barely bore thinking about. But the Harmagian was waiting for an answer, so he dragged his attention back to the moment.
He licked his lips and took a deep breath, carefully rehearsing the words he wanted to say before he opened his mouth. “Y…yes,” he said, with another nod. “I c…can do that”
When he told Jane about it later that night she’d squealed with excitement. “See!” she said. “I told you your art was great! Maybe when we get to Port Coriol you can have a… a…” she waved a hand, obviously looking for a word. “A place to do art. And sell it!” He smiled and nodded. He wasn’t sure it’d be that easy, but he wasn’t going to dampen her enthusiasm.
Blue, age 30
Blue wandered through the market, not sure what he was looking for. Oh, he knew in a general sense, but he couldn’t just go into a shop and say “So, an AI in an illegal body kit has just moved in with me and my partner and I need to find a way to make her feel at home”. He agreed that the laws against AI personhood were dumb, and Port Coriol was a lot less strict about a lot of laws, but that would probably be a bit too far even here. He was not quite as comfortable around AIs as Pepper was, but then again, he’d not spent eight years with one as his only friend and family. Which was why he hadn’t objected when Pepper had told him she was bringing Sidra home.
And so here he was, wandering the market trying to find something to help their new houseguest feel at home. He remembered how overwhelming Port Coriol had felt when he and Pepper had first arrived - such a riot of color and sound and everything. It had to be even worse for Sidra, since she’d been programmed as a monitoring AI. She probably didn’t have filters yet for what was and wasn’t worth paying attention to. Just thinking about it was enough to give him a headache. So he wanted to make her more comfortable. More at home. He already had a near-new linkings hub and connector cables in his satchel, bought earlier from one of their friends, though without Pepper’s knowledge. He wanted this to be a surprise for her too, a nonverbal way to reassure her he wasn’t upset by Sidra’s presence.
A flashing pixel sign caught his eye - “Zetki’s Petbot Emporium”. It looked a little small for the term ‘emporium’, but he ambled in anyway. It had been a long, long time since he’d had a pet, but he still had faint memories of a tortoiseshell cat curling up next to him and purring when he’d come home crying because the kids at school were teasing him. He couldn’t quite remember the cat’s name, but he remembered the comfort he’d taken from her presence.
“Can I help you?” asked the female Aandrisk behind the counter. He assumed it was Zetki.
He took a moment to gather his thoughts. Words came easier these days, but it was still better if he paused before speaking. “I have a friend who… who’s just m…moved here. I th…thought a pet bot help her adjust”
The Aandrisk woman smiled and came around the counter. “You’ve come to the right place! I’m Zetki, and my shop may not be large, but what I don’t have on hand, I can order in. Are you looking for a kit or something prebuilt?”
“Prebuilt. I’m not good with tech.”
Zetki smiled, and nodded. “Sure, sure! A new petbot can be just the thing to help someone settle down, and without all the mess and maintenance of an actual animal.” She let out a practiced laugh and then gave Blue a measuring look. “This friend is human?” He nodded. “Do you think xi would prefer an Earth-related species or something novel? Or something from wherever xi’s from?”
The questions gave Blue pause. What would Sidra like? Did she even have a conception of pets? Obviously she’d be able to look up information about them on the linkings, but would she want one? He gave himself a little mental shake. If he started worrying about that, he’d talk himself out of this and probably anything else he thought might work. “I’m not sure,” he said finally. “Some…something friendly?”
His vagueness didn’t seem to bother Zetki. “That’s fine. Hold right there, I have some demo models in the back. Let me grab them and you can interact with them and see if any are what you’re looking for. Obviously, they’ve been around a bit and while they’re not even non-sapient AIs, their programming does have some growth potential, so the one you get out of the box will be a little different, but it’ll help give you an idea.” With a flick of her tail she retreated into the back room.
Nearly an hour later he swiped his wrist patch across the shop’s scanner and Zetik handed him a large box. “Now if you really want to surprise your friend, it’ll be best if you get this set up and activated before xi gets home. It’ll be more like a real animal that way.”
Blue thanked her and tucked the box under his arm. Now to get home and get everything set up before Pepper and Sidra returned. He smiled to himself. He had a good feeling about this. Sidra would like his presents, and he and Pepper would do everything they could to help her settle it. They could all be a family together. A real family that cared for and loved each other.
Yes. This was going to be good.