knight of wang
California Dreaming, part 12/?

i think i can see the ending from here if i squint…

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    He looks silly in a wetsuit. Skinny and awkward, all elbows and eyes. It’s terribly cute. He catches you smirking at him and snarls something caustic that you don’t hear over the boat’s engine.

    Once he’s in the water, though, the awkwardness disappears. He suddenly moves with perfect assurance and grace. Unimpeded by his mask and tank, he doesn’t even bother staying head-up most of the time; he’s perfectly at home in a three-dimensional environment, curving and twisting with a lazy flick of a flipper while you thrash and overcorrect and — in one incident he will probably never stop teasing you about — get yourself tangled in the base station’s tether.

    Unfortunately, you have no time to play. Every test turns up new bugs, adjustments that need to be made, challenges the bots aren’t quite equipped to overcome. They spend more time on the deck than in the water, and you spend most of yours tinkering with them. Eridan, however, spends every minute in the ocean that he can. Unless you have a specific task for him on the boat, he doesn’t come out until it’s time to go back. He uses up his air tanks, then strips off his mask and goes free-diving, staying down for an unnervingly long time before breaking surface for a few unhurried breaths.

    Norma has to remind you several times that you’re here to test the machines, not drool over your roommate.

    “He’s one hell of a swimmer, I’ll give him that,” she concedes. “Which means he’ll be fine without a lifeguard, so how about you focus on unsticking that rotor now? I’ll let you know if he gets eaten by a shark.”

    Since you turn the boat back as soon as the sun gets low, you’re home by dinnertime, already worn out when, on other days, you’d just be hitting your stride. You sit across the table from each other with takeout and beer, silent, suffused with the kind of weary well-being that can only come from a day working outdoors. Then Eridan gets out his notebook, and you go out to the garage to pick away at whatever problems the day’s tests turned up.

    By the fifth day, you have the whole swarm in the water and running at once, four robots zooming along together like a little school of safety-orange, fan-propelled fish. You watch with your heart in your mouth and your fingers crossed, silently begging them to do what they’re supposed to do. Eridan films them; that was going to be your job, but he’s much steadier with the camera. The bots spread out, moving independently but keeping tabs on each other, and begin mapping the seafloor. Yes!

    They keep it up for nearly an hour before unit two becomes mysteriously bashful and starts avoiding the other bots. You sigh bubbles and go fetch it. The course of true science never did run smooth.

    Eridan helps you hand the bots up to Norma. You climb out, shed your gear, and eel out of your wetsuit. You wave Norma off — she finds debugging infuriating, not soothing, and she has piles of data to sort through. You plunk down on the deck and pop two’s case open so you can plug it into the laptop and find out what the hell it thought it was doing.

    To your surprise, Eridan sinks down across from you. Still suited up, but sans tank and flippers. He studies the bot curiously. “Why did it do that?”

    “That’s what I have to figure out.” You frown at the screen, gnawing your lip, as the bot dumps its log. That is a lot of text to have to sort through. But of course it wasn’t going to be anything obvious like a hardware malfunction, not with weird behavior like that. “This is going to take forever. Damn. Damn it.”

    Eridan rears back in exaggerated shock. “Whoa.”

    “Sorry. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”

    “Yeah, that was not what the ‘whoa’ was about. Are you okay?”

    “I’m fine.” You sigh, shoving your hands impatiently through your dripping hair. Belatedly, you realize Eridan is actually concerned for you. You glance at him, and he looks away. Don’t reject this, you caution yourself. “I’m not fine,” you admit quietly.

    He meets your eyes again. “Why?” he says just as softly. “Is it like… super broken or something?”

    “No. No, it’s not this malfunction, not really. Just…” You glance up to make sure Norma’s still in the wheelhouse and can’t hear you. “I’m exhausted, Eridan. I’ve been running short on sleep for months, and it’s catching up with me. I’ve done nothing but work on this stupid swarmbot for so — so bloody long — and I think I sort of hate it now.”

    “No shit, it took you this long to get sick of it? I’ve been wondering when you were going to snap.”

    The sudden inversion of perpsective gets a startled laugh out of you. “I’ve been thinking the same thing about you — all those predawn calls, fourteen hour days, getting yelled at by sleazeballs for less than minimum wage? I’ve been thinking, any day now you’re going to flip the table and walk away.”

    “Wouldn’t be the first time. But I always go back. What else would I do?” He shrugs as if the question is rhetorical.

    You point at his discarded breathing apparatus meaningfully. He raises an eyebrow. So do you. He begins to look thoughtful. You nod.

    “What, like a salvage diver or something?” He sounds tentative, as if his talent in the water is something you could negate by disagreeing.

    “Even a tour guide makes more money than a movie extra. And you’re an exceptional diver, you could do much more than guide tours. You’re surprisingly steady with a camera, for instance.”

    He thinks about it for a long moment. “Huh,” he says at last.

    “When you get back from acting or modeling, you look completely burnt out. When we get back from doing this, you look satisfied. Just something to think about.”

    “Weird.” The corner of his mouth turns up. “You just want more excuses to laugh at me in a wetsuit.”

    “It only looks funny on deck. Underwater you’re amazing.” You focus on the screen, feeling a little self-conscious now. “I keep dreaming you’re a merman. Not like a fairytale merman at all. Legs, not a tail. But… alien. It’s decidedly unnerving. You have sharp teeth and claws, and gills like a salamander, and sometimes you drown me.”

    It takes several moments of silence from him to make you look up. His expression shocks you. Wounded rage. As if you’ve betrayed him. “That notebook was private,” he snaps, rolls to his feet, and dives off the edge of the boat.

    “What?” you say stupidly to the disturbed water

    When he surfaces, he’s out of talking range. Lovely, that makes it so much easier to focus on your job. If looks could kill, unit two would be a smoking heap of melted plastic and scorched wiring.

    Norma’s shadow falls across your work. “So what’s the deal?”

    “Just a dramatic exit,” you snarl as you punish the spacebar. “He uses them in place of reasoned discourse. Because he is twelve.

    “I meant the robot,” Norma says with exaggerated patience. “What is the deal with the robot. Why does the robot keep buzzing off. I’m not really interested in why your pet drama queen does it.”

    “God, I don’t know, Norma, there’s two hundred and six pages of core dump here and it’ll take me an hour to even skim it. Can we just reboot and try again? See if the error recurs predictably or if we’ve got a heisenbug on our hands.”

    “Fine.” She sucks air through her teeth, hands on her hips, scanning the distance as if posing for a Soviet-realist portrait of Science Serving The Proletariat. Or, you realize a moment later as she squats down to help you wrestle the bot, as if checking that the chop’s not severe enough to damage the equipment if you keep working. “And if it does recur, we’ll reboot again and switch up the formation. See if it has anything to do with position. Because it looked to me like it was misinterpreting the location of the rest of the swarm.”

    You sit back on your heels, anger momentarily forgotten. There’s a reason she’s your postdoc advisor. You still have plenty to learn from her. “Oh! Yes, we can test for that! I’ll get suited up.”

    Norma goes to the rail, sticks two fingers in her mouth, and whistles piercingly. “Hey! Come give us a hand!”

    Eridan comes obediently back, and works as hard as before, but he throws you nasty looks behind Norma’s back. So immature. But at least he’s competent in the water even when he’s angry, and it’s not as if you have time to indulge in emotional maunderings. Norma’s hypothesis proves correct: whichever bot is placed at the rear point of the formation eventually starts displaying avoidant behavior.

    At the end of the day, you find yourself almost hoping Eridan decides to stage one of his overnight disappearances. You have so much work to do.