Endangered

Androids have all but won the war against humanity, and the remnants of the once-great human civilization are reduced to miles of wastelands and hidden communities struggling to survive. Dirk and his friends are sent out to scavenge for supplies, while AR is sent to hunt down and exterminate the dwindling human population. Their fated meeting is the beginning of a union between species that was once thought impossible.

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10. Chapter 10

The dreams come to you, one after the other, seemingly without end.

You dream about your friends, sitting together at the table in your tiny living room. Roxy laughs as Jane says something to Jake, and they continue talking in muffled voices. After a while, they all look up and see you, their faces smiling happily. Jake puts his hand on your shoulder and tells you that he’s known all along. You run your fingers through his short, black hair when he hugs you.

You dream about Bro, staring appraisingly through his dark shades as he asks for a report or gives you a new order for the day, keeping the flow of activity through the compound working smoothly, benefiting everyone. He approves of something you’ve done. He admonishes you for something you shouldn’t have done. He says your name, then screams it. He looks at you, and his shades are missing.

You dream about the city, picking through the empty ruins of a dead civilization, searching for treasures of canned food and unbroken electronic devices, batteries, medicine, gasoline. Jake and the others are with you, searching the rubble for anything they can bring home. You dig through the dust and debris with your bare hands, finding a flash drive buried in the rocks.

You dream about English, and his leering glare every time you pass him in the tunnels. The colors on his coat seem to flash as he opens his mouth, teeth chipped away at the edges into sharpened points, as he tells you that death is an inevitability. His hand finds your throat, then it’s your Bro’s throat, and you’re watching from some distance away, unable to move, as English slowly crushes his windpipe.

You dream about AR.

He walks alongside you through the tunnels, speaking to you in his metallic voice, while you turn to greet one of your friends as they walk past in the opposite direction. He’s holding out one of his claws to you, asking for something, and you take the metal points in your hands before bringing them to your neck. You’re on your back, and he’s over you, wrapped around you, whispering in your ear, tearing a hole in your stomach with one of his hands. When you try to scream, he tears off your jaw with the other. English stands with the EMP gun pointed at him as AR turns his back, but you don’t move this time, and his circuits go dark as his metal body crumples to the floor. He’s with you in the city as your group digs through the rubble for supplies, his appendages gone and his skin flesh-colored like yours. You stand next to him on the rooftop of a hollow building and look down at your hands, seeing the glowing, angular lines of orange circuitry in your black skin. You’re in the waterworks with him again, in the tunnel with the open hatch door, and you put a hand out and press it to his chest, then slide it over his shoulder. When you kiss him, he pushes you away. When you kiss him, he kisses you back. When you kiss him, he tears off your head and crushes your eyes with his fingers. The pain almost feels like it’s real, and Jane’s voice drifts to your ears, over a strange grinding sound.

You inhale.

The pain lingers as your eyes open, seeing nothing but blurred shapes and colors. You lift a hand to your head, and your fingers press against a thick cloth. When you swallow, your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth, and when you try to lift your head, the pain gets exponentially worse, until you’re squeezing your eyes shut and taking shallow, panting breaths. You stay motionless until it fades back to a more bearable level, and cautiously open your eyes to look around the room.

It’s the infirmary again.

This isn’t the first time you’ve woken up here, but last time there were people around when you opened your eyes. Now you’re alone, lying in one of the small cots with a thin blanket tucked around your body. When you move to pull it off, something tugs on the inside of your elbow, and you carefully turn your head to see a thin, plastic tube running from where it’s taped to your arm, to the IV bag hung on the wall.

You give up trying to remove the blanket and relax into the bed, your every thought feeling like it’s wrapped in a fog. Closing your eyes against the light, you try to remember the last thing that happened to you.

English. You remember his face, twisted in anger as you tried to pull something out of his hands. He’d been holding it when you jumped at him and grabbed it. Something mechanical, like a rectangular box of metal and wired parts.

An electromagnetic gun, pointed straight at AR’s back.

You practically jump out of the bed, and your vision instantly erupts in stars at the sudden motion, with a splitting pain that has you holding your breath in agony. There’s a sound like quick footsteps, before someone is pushing you back down, and you squint at the vague forms of two people, one of them leaning over to the nearby desk, before returning and pressing their fingers to your lips. Something small and hard, like a bead, is placed on your tongue when you finally part them, and what feels like the rim of a cup is then held to your mouth. You swallow it, unable to think any further beyond the recognition of what must be a pill and water. The activity seems to have exhausted you already, and you relax again into the soft bed, as the murmur of voices drifts across your ears. You remember the EMP gun. You remember English pulling it out of your hands, and then you were lying on the floor a moment later, watching his feet slowly lift into the air. It feels like another lifetime, but you remember it all.

‘AR,’ your mind whispers, as your thoughts slip back into dreams. This time, it’s nonsensical and bizarrely vivid. By the time you wake up again, it feels like it’s been ages since you last opened your eyes.

The room is darker than before, the door closed and only one of the several bulbs hung from the ceiling in use. Your head still hurts, but the pain is dull and distant. The IV line is gone, along with the bag that was hanging on the wall, but something is still wrapped around your head, like an oversized bandage. When you try to sit up, your body feels even weaker than before, and a sudden, gentle pressure against your left shoulder stops you.

You turn your head, to see a folding chair set up next to the bed and the figure sitting in it, his shades pushed up to rest in his blond hair. They’re a different pair than the ones he had before, but you don’t bother wondering what happened to them.

“Bro?” you whisper, having meant to say his name louder, but your throat feels like sand.

“How do you feel?” he asks, removing his hand from your shoulder once you relax. “Are you in pain?”

You hear the question, but your mind still seems like it’s running in slow motion, and you lose your focus as he waits for an answer. The memory of his hands tied and the gun pointed at the back of his head lingers as a vivid mental image, through the grainy static of the compound’s cameras.

“Dirk.” He says your name to get your attention, and repeats the question when you blink at him. His eyes are red, and they remind you of something vitally important.

“A little,” you murmur, trying to clear your throat. “Where’s AR?”

He stares at you silently for a long moment, his expression unreadable, before he turns away and reaches for something on the table by your bed. An orange pill bottle is uncapped in his hand, and he removes one of them before recapping it and setting it aside. His other hand is already holding a cup of water, and he brings the pill to your mouth.

“Open up,” he says softly, and you obey, letting him place it between your teeth. He steadies the cup with one hand while you drink and gently supports the back of your head with the other. When you’re finished, he sets it back on the table. You’re desperately thirsty all of a sudden, but you ignore the unpleasant feeling.

“Where’s AR?” you say again, unable to care about your brother’s reaction to the question, as your fear at his silence gradually rises.

“The android is gone,” he finally says, almost tonelessly. “It left after you got knocked out. That was almost a week ago.”

You exhale, closing your eyes.

He left without you.

It doesn’t make sense. Everything he did for you, all the frustration he put himself through (and you could tell that every request you made was wearing on his nerves towards the end), he somehow decided at the very end to leave without the one thing he came for. He wanted you badly enough to let you direct his actions, however briefly, and he saved the lives of your friends- of human beings. You didn’t even know that was possible for someone like him. None of it makes any sense.

“English is dead,” Bro says, pulling you back from your wandering thoughts. “He was in pieces by the end of it. There wasn’t enough of him left to bury.” He takes his shades from the top of his head and folds them, placing them on the table by your bed. You have a bad feeling about the gesture. “Calliope is alive.” He says the words almost casually, and the period of silence that follows is intentional. You can almost feel yourself shrinking under his stare. “But that doesn’t surprise you at all, does it?”

“Bro…” you whisper, almost pleadingly, but for what, you aren’t sure. His expression doesn’t change.

“Did I ever tell you how many people we started this compound with?” He leans back in the chair, folding his hands together over his knee. “You were still a baby then. Lalonde and I rounded up almost a hundred people on our own to fortify these tunnels, and once it was safe, that number tripled.” He breathes out lightly, looking down at his hands for a long, silent moment. “English was one of the first to show up after the fortifications were done, and right from the start, he wanted to shut the compound off to any more ‘refugees,’ as he called them. We didn’t have enough resources for everyone, but we weren’t about to start turning people away.”

You aren’t sure where he’s going with this, but the sound of his voice is almost soothing, despite the situation and the topic of conversation. He’s still watching you as he speaks, making sure that you’re paying attention.

“We didn’t want to take on a leadership role.” He taps his fingers against his knee thoughtfully, his eyes distant. “The compound was supposed to work for the good of everyone, in the interest of mutual survival, but once English started pressuring the right people and openly consolidating power, we didn’t have much of a choice. Your friend’s grandmother eventually got us on board with the idea, but it was too late to keep English’s built-up influence from causing problems. There wasn’t much we could do after that, apart from having him assassinated.” He regards you silently. “None of this would’ve happened if we had just taken control from the start, but we were younger then,” he shakes his head, “and stupid, and naive.”

His words are sour, clashing painfully with the childish image you’ve held onto all these years of him as a benevolent, infallible figure, but you still recognize the truth in them. You’ve hero-worshiped him for so long, it had to happen eventually, but it doesn’t make it any less surreal and dissonant.

“This entire compound was supporting just under two hundred people when English started his armed takeover last week.” He pauses, looking at you silently for a moment. “Now we’re down to fifty.”

Your heart sinks, and you shut your eyes, but he isn’t finished.

“They killed everyone who wasn’t a guard or a technician,” he says, his voice soft, “along with everyone who fought back. Lalonde and the old lady would’ve made the cut, if they hadn’t picked up a gun.”

‘Roxy’s mother,’ your mind whispers mournfully, and your eyes sting as you picture them together. Her mom was in the command center and maintenance labs so often, it felt like you hardly ever saw her, but she was a tall, thin woman with a quiet presence who always seemed to be observing everyone around her with a keen insight. You knew she was close to your Bro, and that they had known each other as kids before all of civilization came to an end, but it was hard to tell exactly what their relationship had been. Bro’s expression is resigned, but then again, he’s had an entire week to come to terms with it, while your own heart feels like it’s breaking.

“What about Jane’s dad?” you whisper. His eyebrows rise a little.

“He’s fine. The kitchen is close to an exit point, and he made it out with a few others when the fighting started.”

You sigh, holding on to that single shred of good news, while the rest of you feels like it’s drowning in misery. “I want to see my friends.”

“You will.” He folds his hands again and regards you seriously. “But first, I think we need to have a conversation about exactly what happened six days ago.”

There it is. You were hoping he wouldn’t bring it up, but you knew he would eventually, and you’re not getting out of this until he’s satisfied.

“I’ve already debriefed your friends, but I want to hear it from you this time. From the beginning.” he says with finality. You resist the urge to argue, wishing that he would at least wait until you don’t feel like you’re half asleep to grill you about this.

From the beginning, he says.

Your thoughts are still foggy, but you can remember the beginning well enough. The flash drive, the bargain you made, the jagged piece of metal. He listens as you recount the event in a slow, tired monologue. Part of it he already knows, back from when Roxy had to purge the network the first time, but he wasn’t aware of the details, especially when you transition into the night Jane went missing. He’s silent as you tell him about what happened, how the android waited for you at the drugstore and ambushed you, chasing you into the subway tunnels, and how he held your neck between his claws. His expression doesn’t change as he listens to how you wrapped the cable around AR’s neck and fled to the checkpoint, and how you were almost caught at the last moment. Then, you finally get to the day of English’s coup, when you snuck out of the compound with Roxy and met with Jake and Jane.

“I remembered the flash drive,” you tell him, picturing their hopeful faces as you told them you had a plan. “I knew it was a long shot, but I didn’t see any other options.” You lean back against the pillow, now at your back since Bro helped you into a sitting position towards the start of your story. “I figured if I could get his help, we could get rid of English for good. I knew he was angry after losing me in the subway, and I thought maybe I could use that. To save everyone.” He waits patiently as you pause, unsure of how to continue. “I didn’t have any other choice. There was nothing any of us could have done, and it was the only thing I could think of at the time.”

“Keep going,” he says tonelessly, watching as you hesitate, conflicted. You want to lie about the next part, like you did to your friends, but you know it would be useless to even try.

“We got back to my room, and I contacted AR.” You lower your eyes, picking at the thin blanket with your fingers. “I made him an offer, and he accepted. In return for killing English and his gang, I would let him do whatever he wanted to me when it was over, if he stuck to my terms and didn’t hurt anyone he wasn’t supposed to. I promised I’d go with him willingly, at the end.”

Your brother frowns slightly, but says nothing, and he doesn’t seem all that surprised by your words. He might have already guessed it, the way you suspected Roxy had before. You let out another shaky breath, just wanting this to be over.

“I let him in through the waterworks, and took him into the base’s tunnels. You know the rest from there.” He’s silent when you finally finish, fidgeting with your hands as you wait for him to say something, before a thought occurs to you. “What happened after I got knocked out?” you ask, looking up at him. He meets your eyes silently.

“You had a severe head injury,” he says quietly. “We had to remove a chunk of your skull to keep your brain from swelling up and killing you. It’ll be replaced again in about a week. Until then, try not to touch your head, and don’t take off the bandages.”

That explains the pain from before. It’s better than it was when you first woke up, but there’s still that spot on the front of your head that feels like someone’s grinding their fist into a bruise every time you move.

“What about AR?” you ask again. Bro knew what you meant the first time, but for some reason, he seems reluctant to talk about the android.

“I already told you, it left after tearing English apart, along with one of our six remaining electromagnetic weapons.” He reaches for his shades on the desk and slips them back on. They’re slightly smaller than the ones he had before, and the lenses are darker, to the point where you can’t see his eyes anymore. “I guess it decided not to bother with you after all.”

He’s lying.

You aren’t sure of a lot of things when it comes to your Bro, but right now, you can tell without a doubt that he’s lying to you about AR. The realization comes with a stab of fear as he stands to leave, but there’s nothing you can think of to say. If you accuse him of it or repeat the question, he’ll just brush you off, and your mind grasps for what he could possibly be hiding from you. Once again, your thoughts return to that last encounter with English, and you almost jump when Bro puts a hand on your shoulder.

“How’s the pain now? Does it feel any better?” he asks, and you nod slowly. “Good. Try to get some rest. Your friends can visit you tomorrow, if you’re awake.” He squeezes your shoulder gently, his voice quiet. “You did well, keeping them safe. I’m proud of you, kiddo.”

His sudden, heartfelt statement puts you at a loss for words, and you watch as he leaves the room, gently closing the door behind him. A week ago, you would have treasured those words as a very rare expression of affection, but now, with everything else he’s said, it just strikes you as definitively suspicious, and the coil of fear in your stomach quickly gets worse.

Carefully, you try to roll onto your side, despite the heavy, leaden feeling in your limbs and the way your head spins at the movement. Your shades are still folded on the desk next to the bottle of pills and glass of water, and you manage of grab them at the very end of your reach, lying on your back and taking a moment to breathe after the effort. You unfold the stems and put them on, the screen dark in hibernation from the lack of use, but when you tap the side to wake it, nothing happens.

Frowning, you tap the side again, then try mentally booting up the computer, and the screen finally lights up, but all you see is a blank display.

Your desktop is missing. The icons that used to sit along the edge of it are also gone, along with the time and CPU indicators at the bottom. You try to open a program, any program, but there’s no response. It’s like your hard drive’s been completely wiped.

“Fuck…” you whisper, giving up and dropping the shades back onto the desk. Something might have happened when AR used them to show you the security footage, but you can’t shake the feeling that it was something else entirely. It’s been almost a week since you lost consciousness, and that would have given anyone plenty of time to delete the operating system from your built-in computer, if they wanted to.

You lie on your back in the quiet room, replaying the conversation with your Bro, trying to find the inconsistencies in his words, as an ominous feeling settles in the back of your mind. In the end, you’re unable to figure it out before sleep comes again, and it feels like less of a dream, and more of a memory- something wrapped tight around your body and a hushed voice, an almost painful warmth clashing with the feeling of a cold surface against your back, and voices above you, murmuring things back and forth you can’t quite understand. Something presses to your forehead and tingles against your skin like electricity. It’s only later that you realize your Bro should have asked more questions about what happened, that he was strangely silent after your explanation, as though he already knew the answers.

You forget the dream by morning.

   
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