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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15. Chapter 15

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” you finally admit, leaning back with a defeated sigh. AR glances at you over his shoulder, watching you frown at the wires sticking out of the tear in his limb. They aren’t sparking anymore, but apparently they still hurt when touched, and you’ve been carefully trying to coax them apart from their mangled bundle without breaking them or making him flinch when you accidentally tug at one too hard.

“I’d be kinda surprised if you had.” Roxy’s voice emanates from across the room, along with the sound of her digging through drawers full of equipment. She’s still searching for a pair of insulated tweezers, since every plier you’ve found so far is too big to work with the tiny wires. AR’s other three appendages are resting on the floor in loose coils, as he sits on the low metal table you dragged into the middle of the room, with his damaged limb draped across the surface next to him.

“What is this even made of?” you ask, running your fingers along the torn metal, before picking up the rubber-handled pointed chisel you’ve been using and carefully separating one of the wires from where it was caught in the jagged edges. His appendages are the same black, shiny material his body is covered with, and you can’t help your mechanic’s curiosity.

“My exterior is a composite of tungsten carbide, cobalt, and iridium alloy,” AR answers, before flinching and glaring at you over his shoulder when you accidentally bend the tip of the severed wire. One of his appendages lifts into the air and clamps around your wrist. “The wires are transition-metal dichalcogenides, and as I have stated before, they are analogous to your human nerves, and are highly sensitive when exposed.”

“That doesn’t sound like something I can weld back together,” you say with another sigh, letting him hold your wrist in his claws. Their metal is a different color from the rest of him, and you run the fingers of your other hand along the smooth, curved points. “What about these?”

“The prehensile component of my limbs are a polycrystalline cubic boron nitride and silicon nitride composite, designed to efficiently rend human flesh and any physical obstruction that may prevent me from doing so.”

“Geez, I don’t think I’ve even heard half these words.” Roxy mutters, appearing from behind a row of workbenches and carrying the pair of tweezers you’ve been looking for. She transfers them to your hand (the one not currently restrained in AR’s claws) and stands off to the side, glancing at the entryway where your Bro posted a guard just past it in the tunnels beyond. “Also, you might not wanna let the guard hear you say that kinda stuff out loud, just fyi.”

AR releases your wrist and lets you continue picking at the wound, after you send Roxy off again to search for as many wire nuts as she can find. You don’t want to admit defeat, but he might have been right when he said you wouldn’t be able to repair the damage to his limb. You’ve only been at it for half an hour, but you’re already running out of ideas, and whatever technology that was used to build his body far surpasses the equipment you’re working with.

Still, you’re relieved he’s going to stay, in spite of everything else. The guard posted at the entrance to the maintenance lab checked everyone for weapons before you were allowed to enter, and your brother was waiting inside with AR when you arrived with Roxy and Calliope. Although the air between the two of them was noticeably tense, Bro explained that the guard he posted was a precaution to prevent anyone from bringing an EMP device within range of the android. He went on to explain that “Auto” will be staying in the compound to escape the kill order he’s been marked with, and in return, he’ll be providing the base with information and digital resources. It took you a moment to realize he was referring to AR, and another to figure out that he must have told Bro his full name at some point.

Apparently, back in the beginning when he was still a chatbot, the android was connected to the internet for almost a year. You’re familiar with the concept- a “world wide web,” consisting of a global network of computer-based documents and media that could be browsed or created by anyone. Literally any piece of information was once available to whoever had a computer and a working connection, but this network vanished with human civilization, and you, with the rest of your generation, have only heard about it second-hand. Apparently while he was connected to it, AR absorbed massive amounts of information, enough to fill your databases several hundred thousand times over, including a detailed blueprint of the city and comprehensive guides on everything from medical procedures (as you’re well acquainted with) to maintenance, and every practical and scientific principle ever discovered. He’s also capable of tracking the other androids by their electronic signals, and is willing to rewrite any existing programs in your base’s network to operate at a much higher efficiency level. In other words, he’ll act as the compound’s information and technological hub, if he’s protected in return- something that Bro has agreed to on the condition that he doesn’t harm any of the compound’s residents, unless it’s in self-defense, which is why the guard is posted to prevent that from happening.

Bro finished explaining this, then told Calliope when asked that no, he hasn’t decided what to do with her brother yet, but he’s heavily considering execution. Roxy pulled Calliope aside and hugged her tightly after that, the two of them exchanging a soft, murmuring conversation, as your Bro also pulled you away and told you to report to his living quarters when you’re done in the maintenance lab. You’re still bitter about the way he lied to you, although you’re endlessly grateful that he’s letting AR stay, and the two warring emotions, along with the android’s unwavering and vaguely possessive stare from a short distance away, made the conversation with him short and awkward. You still had a multitude of questions to ask him, but apparently there are a lot of preparations that need to be made, and you won’t deny that the atmosphere between AR and your Bro was less than amicable. You felt relieved when he left, and Calliope followed him a minute later, after thanking Roxy for whatever she’d said to her in private.

The tweezers Roxy brought you are needle-tipped, and perfect for separating out the thin, delicate wires in AR’s limb. You don’t even know where to begin restoring the broken connections, since “dichalcogenide” is a completely alien word to you, and you’d need a soldering iron the size of a human hair to reconnect them. That leaves you with only two other options, one of which is to abandon the effort entirely.

“I don’t think I can fix this,” you tell him, carefully pushing the wires to one side and exposing what looks like a central frame running along the length of the metal limb- a heavily jointed structure, obviously designed to give the appendage its tentacle-like flexibility.

“I did not anticipate that you would be capable of doing so,” he states, as you gently tap your tool against the internal frame. It reverberates strangely, and you can see another forest of wires just past it within the undamaged area.

“What do you want me to do, then? I could try reconnecting them, but they’re too delicate, and the only soldering guns we have use lead and tin.” You set the tweezers aside and touch the jagged edge of the wound, feeling the dense strength of the metal. “I guess we could just try amputating it,” you suggest hesitantly, as Roxy returns with a large handful of wire nuts, leaving the rubber caps in a pile next to the tweezers.

“You may attempt it,” AR says with a touch of bitterness, as you trace your fingers around the appendage where it emerges from his back. “However, I am unable to interrupt my internal sensory wiring, thus I would prefer that whatever you are about to do is performed quickly.”

“Should I get the plasma cutter?” Roxy asks softly, and you get a bizarre sense, like you should be doing this in the infirmary instead of the maintenance lab. You nod to her, and she goes to retrieve it, while you find a cloth to wipe the area where you’ll be making the cut. AR’s damaged limb is cool to the touch, now that the claw at the end of it isn’t twitching anymore, but his back still has the same radiating heat as the rest of him. You place your hand between his shoulders, feeling the vibrating mechanisms beneath, and resist the urge to press your ear against the warm metal to hear it.

“Sorry, I guess you were right,” you half-whisper. “At least Bro came to an agreement with you. How did that go, by the way?”

“Your brother is a surprisingly hostile and unyielding individual, given your genetic relationship,” he says, turning to look at you over his shoulder with a single red eye. “While I had anticipated a certain level of uncooperativity, the topic of my prior arrangement with you made it exceptionally difficult to negotiate with him.”

You can’t even imagine what that must have been like, and you’re almost glad Bro kicked you out of the command center. Even so, you still have to report to him after this, and you’re dreading that conversation more than anything else. Roxy returns a moment later with the plasma cutter- a thin, handheld torch with a nozzle at the tip, and multiple cables connecting it to the wall. She gives you the grounding clamp that goes with it- an important component that completes the electric current it uses to cut with- and you clip it to the wound’s jagged edge.

You retrieve a pair of safety goggles and gloves, before starting to cut through the limb where it attaches to AR’s back, with a bright, sizzling light. The plating is only about a centimeter thick, but it seems to take forever for the torch to reach all the way through, and you’re forced to switch hands several times as your wrists start to ache. Although you’re doing your best to avoid melting the wires inside, AR’s posture is noticeably rigid as you progress around the base of the limb. The tool leaves behind a narrow, ragged line in the black metal, and when you finally make it all the way around, the plating detaches from his back and slides down the bundle of wires like a sheath.

“Now what?” Roxy asks, eyeing the wires as you set the plasma cutter aside and remove the safety gear. “Can we really just cut them? Aren’t they like nerves or something?”

AR’s claws are clenched tightly shut where they’re resting on the floor, and before you can say anything to Roxy, one of them snakes into the air and clamps down on the wires where they emerge from his back, twisting and pulling until the entire bundle is severed along with the thin metal frame in the center. You cringe at the way some of the wires stretch and snap, before the appendage falls away to clang loudly on the floor.

“That’s one way of doing it, I guess…” Roxy murmurs.

“Your methods are far too inefficient,” AR grits out, his hands gripping the now-warped edges of the table, while his coils shift miserably at your feet. There’s a round hole in his back where the limb used to connect, with at least a hundred tiny, damaged wires sticking out of it, and you have a good idea of what you’ll be doing for the next few hours.

Eventually, Roxy ended up working on some of the broken equipment from the intake table nearby (including the radio you’d been trying to fix yesterday), while you leaned over AR’s back, meticulously stripping and twisting the individual wires together into small clusters, before capping them with the rubber wire nuts. He still flinches when you tug on them too hard or accidentally bend one too far, but the tweezers seem to be working much better than the pliers you had before, and you can even reach inside the round opening in his plating to retrieve the ones that break off. As a maintenance project, attempting to repair a living, conscious entity is far outside your realm of experience, but wires and metal are something you’re comfortably familiar with, even if the materials are strange to you. AR, for his part, has been relatively quiet since you started, apart from the occasional pained, irritated sound when you aren’t careful enough. You’re surprised he’s still letting you do this, even though it’s obviously hurting him, but you’re settling into an easy rhythm with the tools between your fingers, adapting quickly to the delicate consistency of the wires.

“Does that feel any better?” you ask, after securing another of the rubber caps. The fact that touching the exposed wires somehow translates into a painful sensation for him is something you’ll probably never understand.

“Yes,” he replies, his three remaining limbs shifting restlessly as you work. Roxy helped you drag the severed appendage away from the table, but you have no idea what to do with it now, or even how to patch the hole in his plating when you’re done.

“This must be really strange for you.” Your voice is kept low, despite the fact that Roxy is probably close enough to overhear you anyway (and you don’t mind even if she does). It’s a topic you’ve been debating whether or not to bring up, since he hasn’t always reacted well to idle conversation in the past when he’s not the one to initiate it, but you’re hoping things might be different now.

“In what manner are you referring to?” He matches your quiet tone, and even with the slight metallic grate, you can tell that most of the tension in his voice is gone, like he really is feeling better now that you’ve capped most of the exposed wires.

“Living with humans, instead of killing them.” One of the wires is bent around the edge of AR’s plating, and you carefully straighten it with the tip of your tweezers, watching his shoulders for any sign of discomfort. “It must be strange, especially with how suddenly everything happened.”

“I am well accustomed to human behavior,” he replies, wincing a little as you twist them together. “Physical proximity to your species is not a novel experience, nor is it remarkably different from observing them through your settlement’s cameras.”

The indifferent tone of his answer is surprising. You’re aware that he’s killed enough people to fill his own mass grave, but you’d thought that being around an entire settlement of them, along with actually not killing everyone in his line of sight for once, might be something he’d actually have to adjust to.

“Bro said you’d be giving us information, though. I can’t think of anything more contrary to killing people than helping them.”

“Childbirth,” Roxy says out loud from across the room. You look at her in confusion, to see her attention still focused on the broken radio.

“It was an arrangement made out of necessity for my continued survival,” AR continues, after pausing with you to glance at Roxy. “I am not unaccustomed to retrieving information for humans on request. Such commands were within the parameters of my original function as the auto-responder component of a chat client, as I have already explained to you in prior conversations.”

Even though it seems like a lifetime ago, you have a vivid memory of what he’s talking about. It had been almost a week since he’d taken up residence in your shades, and you had asked him for his name. He’d told you what it was, along with his origins as a chatbot, and despite what little you knew of his personality at the time, it made perfect sense. You reach for another of the rubber caps, fitting it carefully over the small bundle of wires you’ve amassed before picking up the tweezers again. Roxy seems busy with putting the radio back together after apparently discovering what the problem was, and you’ll have to ask her to walk you through whatever she did to fix it later.

Your fingers suddenly slip on the handle of the tweezers as you fumble with them, and they clink softly against the floor. One of AR’s black appendages slowly moves in response to the sound, like a large, black serpent roused from its slumber, and carefully orients itself over the fallen tweezers, before closing its claws. The tiny tool is dwarfed by them, and he holds it like you would a pin between your fingers as he lifts it into the air, offering it to you silently without so much as a glance at you over his shoulder. Your heart is doing something strange in your chest, as you accept the tweezers from him, and it takes you a while to resume picking through the wires after the appendage sinks back down to rest at your feet.

“I’m sorry I got you in trouble this morning,” you say softly, just to have something to distract yourself from the way your emotions are suddenly twisting in knots. His body is still covered in scratches, and if the glowing wires forming the circuit-like patterns in his skin are anything like the wires inside of him, you won’t be able to fix those either. Even though he’s not expressing it out loud, you can tell he’s frustrated. There’s still a small, selfish part of you deep down that’s happy he’s staying, but this can’t be what he wanted.

“You did not endanger me intentionally,” he replies, as you carefully insert the tweezers into his back to pull out several crumpled wires. “However, I do not understand why you attempted to stop me from killing the human that was responsible. He will likely die regardless of your efforts, after your brother determines a preferable method of execution.”

You sigh, unsure of why AR seems to have trouble with this concept. It’s the same reason you didn’t want him to kill Caliborn’s father, although that plan ended up going to shit regardless, but you can’t just let him tear people to shreds, even if they might actually deserve it. There’s a very particular way your Bro likes to do things, and although you might not understand some of the more convoluted policies he (and the other previous leaders) have put into place, it’s thanks to all those rules that the compound is still running smoothly after fifteen years. Letting AR rip Caliborn apart in front of everyone would have undermined that.

Come to think of it, you’re amazed that he actually listened when you told him to stop, especially since he doesn’t seem to understand your reasoning behind it. You’d almost forgotten, with everything that happened afterwards.

“That reminds me,” you say, trying to keep your tone casual as you pretend to focus intently on the wires. “Not that I’m complaining or anything, but why did you let Caliborn go?”

“I obeyed your command to release him because I trust you.”

Your heart practically stops, as your hands freeze with the tweezers gripped in your fingers. The words are presented to you in his usual, detached monotone, spoken like a fact instead of the most bizarre and confusing thing you’ve ever heard him say. The only thing you can manage in response is a half-choked ‘what?’ and as he begins to explain, you experience for the first time in your life a genuine desire to swallow your own tongue.

“While I was at first confused by your altruistic behavior a month ago, especially considering that my continued survival was a significant detriment to your own, my observation of your physical reactions to me within the last few hours have revealed a potent sexual fixation, despite our complete level of physical incompatibility with one another.” Roxy’s eyes are wide, as she looks up from the radio and stares at AR in disbelief. Your skin feels like it’s on fire. “This misdirection of your human instinct to pairbond and reproduce is a valuable asset, as I am somewhat less adapted to human social dynamics, especially with the individuals in this settlement. Given the nature of your species’ romantic behavior, I trust that you would attempt to protect me from detrimental situations as your desired partner, regardless of whether or not I understand the reasoning behind your actions.”

You feel as though you’ve lost the ability to speak, pointedly staring down at AR’s back to avoid meeting Roxy’s eyes. She already knew how you felt about him, but right now, you’d rather sink into the floor and never be seen again, rather than acknowledge this topic of conversation. What’s worse is that you know he didn’t spell it out just now in order to be cruel or vindictive, he’s just genuinely, honestly indifferent about your feelings, and you don’t know what’s worse- the fact that he knows and doesn’t care, or that he’s openly identified it as a means of protecting himself. You’d probably be heartbroken if you didn’t feel so completely and utterly mortified.

“Please don’t talk about it like that,” you mutter through clenched teeth, refusing to look up at Roxy and continuing to pick at the wires in his back with trembling fingers. Your feelings are a rainbow tie-dye of misery and confusion, but it’s probably just going to hurt later, like a knife to the heart.

“I am aware that your interest in me is socially unacceptable,” he continues, “and that you are distressed by my inability to reciprocate, however while you may resent me for it, you have never, apart from the first several minutes of our first digital conversation, been unaware of what I am or what I have done to you in the past. Were it not for your attraction to the human male ‘Jake,’ I would note that your behavior is suggestive of a very self-destructive form of hybristophilia.”

“Oh shit, I know what that is,” Roxy remarks quietly, but falls silent at the look on your face.

“AR, let’s make a deal,” you say slowly, trying hard not to let your voice shake. “If you promise never to talk about this, I will literally do whatever you want. Just please, don’t ever bring it up again.” You bow your head and wait for his answer. When he doesn’t respond, you look up to see him watching you over his shoulder, regarding you silently with mild confusion.

“Very well,” he finally says, turning away. “If you are so distressed by the concept, I will refrain from making such observations in the future, however I would remind you that you did voluntarily initiate this topic of conversation.”

You finally meet Roxy’s eyes, and she looks back at you with pained sympathy. You wish you could leave and curl up on your living room couch and just talk with her until you forget AR’s words, but you have a job to finish, and a mandated meeting with your Bro after this, which you can already tell is going to be a disaster if today is anything to go by. You can’t bring yourself to say anything else to the android, and you can’t seem to place why his words make you feel so downright miserable. It isn’t as though you misjudged him, but you weren’t expecting him to be so indifferent and dismissive about your feelings. As you continue twisting wires into small bundles and capping them, you realize slowly that you’ve been carelessly humanizing him again. It’s almost like you can’t help it, and maybe you’re better off just chatting with him over pesterchum from now on instead of interacting with him like this, because apparently, you can’t trust yourself to be around him. He’s right- you’ve known what he is all along, and there’s no logical reason why you’d expect him to reciprocate or understand. He isn’t human, and nothing you do will ever change that. When you’re finally finished, he manages to make you feel even worse by thanking you for your help, before leaving the maintenance lab with the guard your Bro posted, and after he's gone, Roxy wordlessly gathers you into a long, heartfelt hug.

 
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