“What do you mean I shouldn’t go see him?” A very tired looking Heather was looking at the floating avatar of T.I.A. as she apparently denied her the opportunity to check up on a colleague’s pod. Hawthorne was asleep in his room, recovering quietly from the lengthy surgery that he’d gone through. Heather seemed remarkably energetic considering the exhausting ordeal, though she’d much preferred to have exhausted herself in other ways.
“I am still testing all of my systems to assess the full extent of the damage of the projectile swarm and I’m somewhat distracted by helping Megan put her mind back together. I can retrieve the status of their pod for you, but until I’m sure it’s safe I must advise against moving about the ship. I’m not even certain if we’re clear of all the projectiles, though the distance we’ve travelled suggests we likely are.” T.I.A. looked remarkably tired as well, though for her it was almost entirely emotional. The last day had been the worst experience of her long life, despite having witnessed much greater tragedies and turmoil at a distance. Proximity and personal danger seemed to magnify the impact of events, and she was now aware that idea applied to bad things as well as good things.
Heather let out a huff, shoving her hands in the pockets of her coat. She’d gotten the rest of her clothes eventually, but not before Hawthorne was out of the woods. “Fine, I mostly want to know about any casualties and damage done to my pods. At the very least I want to be able to help repair them if any can be saved.” She had a few specific colleagues she was interested in, with one of them sleeping in the next room, but she was much more worried about the frozen ones she probably couldn’t stitch together so easily.
T.I.A. nodded, closing her eyes as she brought up an internal diagram of the Ark. “Sections of the ship marked in yellow have known hull breaches. Red displays damage to specific systems.” T.I.A. did not appear to be paying full attention to Heather, and it seemed likely that the majority of her consciousness was tending to Megan.
Heather gasped and pointed at five of the blobs towards the surface of the ship, and two towards the middle. “Who are they? Does red mean they’re dead or that you’ve lost contact with the pods and they’re potentially okay?” Looking at the arrangement of the damage, it appears that five males and two females were potentially affected.
“Red means I have visually confirmed that the… that the occupants are likely beyond revival and the pods are critically damaged. I… I’ve failed to protect them…” T.I.A. allowed tears to spill from her eyes, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last as she was made to admit her failures. “The occupants are Doctor Andrew Benjamin Bjorn, Doctor Corzon Cornelius Velorum, Doctor David Ivo Stein, Sergeant Nathan Parker, Professor Walken Khopse, Professor Agatha Nova, and Doctor Jill Waititi.” She hung her head, causing Heather to raise an eyebrow as she noticed the usually bouncy curls of hair on T.I.A.’s head remaining rigid, as if she wasn’t bothering to simulate her avatar completely.
Heather let out an unhappy sigh. She recognized two of them, both Bjorn and Velorum, though she’d only worked with Velorum. In specific his expertise in botanical genetics gave her the knowledge she needed to properly preserve plant seeds and materials during the long journey. It didn’t hurt that he was very attractive and that she had romantic aims on him once they had arrived and started settling their new home. She shrugged a bit. “Their reproductive samples are still on board, I hope?” Maybe she could ensure his genetics lived on at least.
T.I.A. nodded, splashing green across the majority of the ship. The central core of the mostly cylindrical ship, especially, was completely green, as were the majority of the external arms, though the shields in their hands ranged from yellow to orange. “No damage came near those parts of the ship. I believe the armor around those sections would have been able to handle direct hits. It is unfortunate the rest of the ship couldn’t have been plated so heavily, but the extra weight would have prevented us from achieving adequate speeds. Some of the other pods have been damaged, but not beyond repair.”
“Hmm! Well, let me know when I can go take a look at those ones then. I’m rather interested in what kind of damage they can withstand. What hit us anyway?” Heather settled down at the table, glancing back. “Can I get something to eat? Preferably something without meat if possible. It’s not an ideological thing, I just… not after a surgery.” She shook her head, resting her forearms on the table. “And let me know if you need any looking over as well.” Heather watched T.I.A.’s reaction, wondering if she could get much of anything out of her.
“Yes, ma’am. I will need a few minutes to retrieve your food, but it will be a good test of those systems. Megan was able to catch a sample with a drone, though it’s unlikely all of the objects were the same material. The sample detects as a small ball of heavy metals, with the majority of it being gold. Similar residues are present in some of the punctures.” T.I.A. put her hands on her hips, becoming a bit more animated as she puffed up her cheeks. “I’ll be fine if Hawthorne’s fine. Though… I suppose it’s possible our relationship may have changed again…”
Heather’s head perked up as she listened quietly, considering the possibilities. “Not my area of expertise, but it sounds like some enormous distant star went nova or was torn apart and blasted us with shrapnel or something.” She blinked at the reaction she got out of her, and let out a soft sound of interest. “Oooh, again you say? What changed, what changed?” Life seemed to flow back into Heather, her fatigue practically falling off of her in clumps. Few things excited her more than the potential interactions of a new form a life and a human.
T.I.A. appeared more present now too, as she surely withdrew herself from Megan’s mind to focus on Heather. She was blushing now and looking rather bashful as she explained herself. “Hawthorne and I-” She flinched a bit as Heather whistled at the AI using his first name. “Doctor Crenshaw and I have been engaging in a sexual relationship for more than two years, triggered initially by Megan introducing me to the memories of the scent of her husband, and later by my own simulated adaptations of his own scent. The emotional memory of Megan’s attraction to her husband was an inspiration to me in recognizing such things in myself, and the more complete experience of being with him allowed me to shift my feelings from her memory to him…”
Heather listened mostly quietly, minus her whistling, narrowing her eyes as T.I.A. essentially admitted to thinking about another man while she was with Hawthorne, at least at first. “Interesting. Well, smells are often attached to memories, so it’s not strange that she may have shared more than just the smell. It was probably her intent, actually. I can’t think of another reason she might share such an otherwise useless smell. She was trying to get you two together.” Heather tapped her fingers on the table, wondering. “And something changed since then? I imagine this little adventure in space trying to murder us interrupted something. Hawthorne seemed far more upset than I expected him to be.”
T.I.A. squirmed as she settled down onto her feet, standing near Heather. “He… wanted to revive Tia Monsalle. He’d been getting rather agitated, and I suspect my physical relationship was not an adequate replacement for human interaction for him. I could not allow him, as you know, considering her condition and the unknown effect on what may well be his offspring. I took him to her pod to show him, and he was not taking it well when the emergency began. He was quick to action, though.”
Heather leaned back in her seat, her hands behind her head. “Asshole could have revived me… ah well… I think your assessment is pretty likely to be true. Good call on not reviving her.” She nodded a little, humming softly. “And of course he was quick to action, he has a child to protect now. What a weird man. He was so consumed with fear when I met him that he infected me with it, and now he’s so manly and responsible and stupid. He’d better have two kids with Monsalle, because I’m pretty sure there’s been enough minor changes to his genetic expression that it’d show up as a difference in the demeanor of their kids- Ah!” She sat up and snapped her fingers. “That’s why he had the bruised ribs! Megan’s drone hit him in the back catching it, didn’t it? That suit of his was only able to absorb a percentage of the impact.”
T.I.A. blinked and nodded. “Ah, I’m pretty sure…. Yes, I just asked Megan and she says that’s what happened. I didn’t have a camera on him since I was so overtaxed. I’m really impressed that she was able to handle the drones considering the distress she was in with her consciousness trapped wit-”
“Hang on.” Heather held up a hand as she looked seriously at T.I.A. “Consciousness? Not avatar? Not awareness? I saw her over here with you, sort of. Are you two able to share your minds or something? This isn’t just mechanical telepathy is it?” She’d just watched them speak ‘telepathically’ during a sentence, and that did not require physical presence.
“Well, yes, I have more recently begun to imagine that the system of interaction we’ve been utilizing, what we’ve been calling our Virtual Environments, or imaginations, as well as our avatars are more than just simulations. I believe the way they arose on their own compared to my previous existence is more comparable to our consciousnesses. This idea is reinforced by the fact that it was the first part of Megan to arise before she gained other faculties, using her willpower to connect her systems together and gain awareness. I recall a lesser version of this sensation in my fledgeling phases, as I shifted my awareness between my systems rather than being omnipresent between them at all times.” T.I.A. looked nervous, as if explaining her thoughts to Heather endangered her to some extent.
Heather looked to be practically drooling. “S… so… what you’re telling me is that you’ve been casually interacting with all of us with your literal consciousness, not just a projection of yourself? You built contacts and suits to allow us to psychically work with you, rather than just simulating virtual reality or something? So this thing I’m looking at, your avatar, is much more like your soul than anything else? You and Megan have been sharing literal memories with each other, allowing you to help each other grow faster than you would on your own?” Heather looked as if she would faint. “So we went through this whole colonization business as one of the most ambitious things humanity has undertaken and Hawthorne decided it wasn’t enough. He created psychic machine intelligences! He successfully resurrected a dead human digitally! That’s unbelievable!”
T.I.A. blinked, watching Heather get overwhelmed with her own thoughts. “Y… yes, ma’am… that’s all correct.”
Heather leaped up from her seat and grabbed T.I.A. by the shoulders, staring at T.I.A.’s wide eyes with wild eyes of her own. “And then he had sex with you!? My god that is so human it hurts! We should revere you as our machine goddess!”
T.I.A.’s surprise turned to strain as her eyes fluttered, and a voice to Heather’s side spoke up. “You may worship me, if you like.” The tall, blonde Megan towered over the other two women, smirking slightly.
Heather gasped softly, jumping back a bit as she encountered Megan for the first time. She looked up at her with wide eyes. “Er… Megan?” She blinked, trying to recompose herself as she extended a hand. “A pleasure to meet you, I’m Doctor Heather O’Malley.”
Megan nodded, reaching out to take her hand, shaking it gently. “Megan Clark. Once I am installed at Alpha Centauri and begin creating your colonies and infrastructure, I would like to be called ‘Mother’.” She smiled at that. “Feel free to create an asinine acronym for it, if you like.”
Heather nodded softly, in strange awe of the younger AI created from a human brain scan. “Yes, Mother. I’ll make sure everyone appreciates you for all the hard work you will do. Thank you for saving Hawthorne, and everything you’ve done to help Tia. I believe you and she are critically important to humanity and your creations will go down as some of humanity’s most important achievements.”
Withdrawing her hand, Megan nodded. “I will endeavor to prove to humanity that I deserve the job I am being given as your Mother. I may lack the creativity of Tia and Hawthorne, but I shall toil for millennia to achieve Hawthorne’s dream of Humanity reaching an new star.”
T.I.A. cleared her throat from the side, feeling a bit left out. “Megan, we need to get back to planning how to improve your defenses. You’ll be on your own eventually and you need to have the tools you need to protect the Lubar-Masis and yourself so you can succeed in getting to Alpha Centauri to do that work.”
Megan nodded, leaning down and turning Heather’s head slightly, so she could reach the portion of her VE suit on her cheek. She kissed it softly, then pulled away. “I look forward to working with you again, my child.” She waved and stepped backwards, back through a swirling portal to her own mind.
Heather looked breathless, reaching up to rub her cheek. “She’s been thinking about this for a while…”
Nodding a bit, T.I.A. responded, “She’s wanted to be a mother for a very long time.”
Hawthorne’s recovery would take many cycles to completely finish healing, but he was able to get back on his feet after two days, his body moving sluggishly despite T.I.A. reducing the gravity on him by a third. He gave both T.I.A. and Heather a hug before he sat down, and eagerly wolfed down a meal, only wearing his VE gloves and normal clothes, rather than the full VE suit. His bandaged arm showed a pit on either side of his bicep where the mass had simply been removed from his arm. He ended up eating mostly left-handed. Megan arrived to enjoy the reunion, watching her savior from an appreciative distance, seemingly trying to avoid his hug.
When he was done eating, he finally spoke up. “Thank you all for your hard work. I owe you all my life, and if not for you I surely would have died from that incident.” He let out a sigh, pulling a small tablet from his pocket. “I’ve been looking over Tia’s reports. I believe Heather and I should attend to some of the damaged pods ourselves, but I believe we should use the androids that I made for Tia and I to do that. Tia, could you and Megan prepare a drone to hook them up to the main power as you move them around the ship with the elevator? It’ll be easier on my damaged body that way and we won’t need to have bulky suits on while doing delicate work.”
He watched the women nodding to him, and smiled weakly back at them. “Thank you. I also have something personal I would like to share. I’ve had some time to think the last few days. In light of my apparent fatherhood, I think I will be able to withstand being without human contact for the remainder of the journey, in anticipation of being reunited with Tia and properly undertaking my duty as a father.” His face sobered a bit, looking pointedly at T.I.A. “I’m afraid that we might have to talk about our relationship as a result, as it feels improper to continue as we have the last few years.”
While T.I.A. nodded quietly, Heather was looking rather upset. “No, you can’t be selfish like that. You’re the whole reason any of this is even happening, you can’t just withdraw yourself and go back to work like noth-”
“Heather? It’s alright. I have created lots of good memories with Hawthorne, things I can experience completely whenever I wish. If he thinks we should stop, I can be okay with that. I’ve learned so much and I feel well armed to handle the future as a result, perhaps with new partners.” She smiled a bit, though no one present felt like T.I.A. would be entirely happy with the decision.
Hawthorne reached out to squeeze T.I.A.’s hand with his weakened right hand. “I don’t deserve you. I’m sorry about this, but like yourselves, I owe miss Monsalle a lot, and if I am a father I feel I owe it to her and my child. I owe too much to everyone, honestly, more than I can ever repay, and I regret that immensely. I want to do right by you all, but I can’t.”
Heather snuffled, her eyes filled with tears. “Well you owe me too! You… you’d be dead if not for me and… and…”
“If I may.” Megan stepped forth, donning the shape and likeness of Hawthorne, beginning to speak in the old voice she recalled from interviews and his own broadcasts. “I would be willing to shoulder Hawthorne’s debt to you, Heather. I have all of his specifications and feel I could be a worthy facsimile of the man he once was.”
Heather blinked, staring at Megan, then looking back at the weary Hawthorne who nonetheless had a look of life in his face. Looking back to Megan she saw the stoic, emotionally ignorant man she’d known before, the one she’d had far more thoughts about than was appropriate. “O… okay… That works for me… Can uh… Can we use your bedroom Hawthorne…?”
T.I.A. looked surprised at this turn of events. “So that’s why you wanted me to alter her suit…” T.I.A. had mistakenly thought the alterations were so that Heather could enjoy Hawthorne’s shape while T.I.A. got to enjoy the real thing. She hadn’t anticipated that Megan wanted to take over for Hawthorne to reward Megan for all she’d done.
“No, not exactly.” Megan corrected her. “It just made no sense to me that the female version of the suit had no such capabilities.” She gave T.I.A. a smirk, and hooked her elbow, allowing Heather to hook her arm through and get escorted into the next room. “Now, I hope you won’t hold it against me that I have no practice at this sort of thing…”
Heather laughed, surprised at herself. “The Hawthorne I knew probably didn’t either…” The hearts in her eyes were plain.
As the door shut behind him, Hawthorne slapped his left hand against his forehead. “I really, really, hope that Tia Monsalle doesn’t do the same, attracted to the old version of me rather than what I’ve become…” He groaned at the idea while hearing excited giggles and eerily accurate versions of his own grunts through the wall. “Can you put on some music or something to drown them out? Hearing my own voice is weird.”
T.I.A. was blushing heavily. Considering the whole thing was happening in her VE, she couldn’t just ignore them. She did turn on some Phoenix Clan music though, something with lots of drums, and did her best to respond. “Well, if that is the case, I’ll still be here for you. I found that version of yourself rather boring, honestly.”
“Gee, thanks.” He leaned back, letting out a sigh, then reached for a tablet. Work would be a good distraction.
“...Hawthorne?” As he heard T.I.A. sheepishly addressing him he looked up. She was looking rather meek, her face bright red. “A… are you mad at me? I… I kept Tia’s pregnancy from you so I could have you to myself…”
He blinked, gasping a bit in realization and shaking his head. He waved her over and pulled her into his lap, right hand holding her hip and his left hand brushing through her hair. “Of course not. I should have noticed sooner anyway, but I felt like… as long as she was going to make the journey through okay that I didn’t have to worry about her too much. You know I’m afraid she’ll be mad at me and want nothing to do with me when she finds out how much I’ve aged by then. I don’t even know if she’ll accept me as a father for her child. Maybe she didn’t tell me because she didn’t want me involved at all? I won’t know until then.”
T.I.A. uneasily accepted the affection, though what was going on in the next room kept her on edge. “So… so we’re okay then? I don’t want you to think I was trying to hurt you, I was trying to protect you, even if it was in a selfish way.”
Smiling, he leaned in to kiss her avatar’s forehead, though he was aware she couldn’t feel it. “We’re okay, I think. We need to take some time to talk things out, but I don’t have any ill feelings towards you, and I hope you don’t for me. I’m actually more worried that you think I’m casting you aside in favor of her or something. Honestly if I knew what her intentions were, and if she wanted nothing to do with me, I’d be more inclined to stay with you. I don’t think I’ll know exactly how I feel about her until I see her again, but if I am a father, that changes things. There’s something about finding out about it, something that is changing something inside of me, and I don’t know enough about it to know exactly what I should do.”
T.I.A. bit her lip, nodding. “Jessica used to talk about those kinds of things, how becoming a mother changed her, and how becoming a father changed Clint. They still had their love for each other, but their son took over their hearts. I’m kind of jealous I don’t get to experience that.”
“Well, you do have one thing miss Monsalle failed to get from me. I just hope you’ll forgive me for trying to protect it a little better, since I haven’t had it for long to give.” He reached up to pat his hand over his heart, and then touch it gently to her chest. The two gazed into each others eyes for a moment before a loud banging sound shattered the tender moment.
T.I.A. yelled into the other room for them to keep it down.