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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16. Chapter 16

When you’re finished in the maintenance lab, you don’t make your brother wait any longer than it takes you to walk to his private quarters. The metal door is unlocked, and you step through it, making your way into the room where he’s sitting in his old office chair with a large pile of folders and papers scattered over his desk. His shades are resting on the edge of the table, and you don’t think you’ve seen his eyes in almost a month. It’s like he’s aged by at least several years.

“Why did you lie to me about AR?” You come to a stop in the middle of his room, and it frustrates you to no end when his expression doesn’t change, as he turns around to face you. It’s not even noon yet, but this is already the worst day you’ve had since the last time someone tried to kill you.

“Why did you save him from English’s gun?” he counters softly, like he’s been waiting for you to ask. He pauses long enough to let you to answer him, but you don’t, and it already feels like you’ve lost. “I think you’ll find that the answer to both questions is the same.”

He turns away from you for a moment, shuffling through the papers on his desk, before selecting one and holding it out to you wordlessly. You take it from him and immediately recognize the name written on the top, with a detailed report from the infirmary below it.

“Our fourth maintenance worker is dead,” he says, leaning back and watching as you stare down at the document. “Left-sided heart failure, apparently. Even if we’d caught it sooner, there’s nothing we could have done. We never had any reason to stockpile the medications, and it would have taken an entire pharmacy’s worth of pill cocktails to keep him alive.”

You hand the paper back to Bro when he beckons for it, feeling your spirits sink even lower, and just when you thought this day couldn’t get worse. You can’t even muster enough energy to be angry at him for changing the subject so quickly.

“As of this morning, that leaves only three of you in this entire compound who can fix our equipment.” He motions you over to his cot, and you obediently sit on the edge of it, feeling like you’ve lost the ability to worry about what he’s going to say anymore. “That’s six deaths since English went on his rampage. We’ve already lost over ten percent of our remaining population, and every single one of them had irreplaceable skills.” He leans forward and clasps his hands together. “Our supplies are running low, it’s the beginning of winter, and it’s clear that we can’t sustain ourselves like this for much longer with so few of us left. This entire compound is circling the drain.”

You resist the urge to lie down on your back and just let the world go by, but you do allow yourself to slouch until you can almost pretend you’re lying down. Roxy is still in the maintenance lab where you left her, and you almost asked her to come with you, but your Bro would have just made her wait in the tunnels outside.

“That reason, and that reason alone,” he says slowly, “is why I am allowing the android to stay. We’ll be able to train new workers with the information he has, and our scavengers won’t be in constant danger from random attacks anymore. Speaking of which,” he begins, leaning back again, “do you know what Autoresponder told me, when I asked him how many people he’s killed here in the city?” It’s a rhetorical question, probably. You think AR might have said something about ‘thousands’ once, but you can’t be sure. Bro pauses for a long moment, before telling you. “Eight thousand, five hundred and twenty-eight. It’s been fifteen years since everything went to shit, and he’s killed our entire population more than two hundred times over. I’m considering putting Caliborn to death for a failed attempt at murder, and if we weren’t hanging by our very last, proverbial thread, that android would have been a pile of scrap metal the moment it set foot in here.”

You can tell he’s expecting some kind of reaction from you, but the last few hours have sucked all the fight out of you. Yes, you know that AR hasn’t exactly slowed down the decline of your species, but right now, you just want to get back to the maintenance lab and lose yourself for a few merciful hours to a difficult project.

“What does this have to do with me?” you ask, and Bro frowns at your quiet monotone.

“I know you better than you think I do,” he says, his voice low and vaguely threatening. “The android is staying, but you are restricted to keeping the hours I’ve assigned to you, getting your work done, and reporting to Jane at the end of the day so she can do her job. You will take meals in your room, sleep in your room, and do any programming work in your room, although I don’t know if that’ll even be necessary anymore. The only time I want to see you in the tunnels is when you’re traveling to and from the maintenance lab for your shift. If I have a specific assignment for you, it’ll be sent to you electronically. You are to stay out of the command center from now on. Any repair jobs that need to be done in there will be assigned to someone else.” He leans forward, regarding you severely. “The only reason I called you to maintenance today was because Auto literally wouldn’t let anyone else touch him, or even be in the same room while you were doing repairs, although I still can’t figure out why Roxy of all people was an exception.” Bro pins you with a commanding stare. “I don’t know what the fuck is going on in that twisted artificial brain of his, but you, Dirk, are hereby barred from coming within twenty feet of him, unless I give you specific instructions otherwise. Do I make myself clear?”

You blink at him, before hanging your head slightly. Yesterday you would have rebelled against the command, but today, you’re done with this conversation, and done with thinking about AR. Bro lifts an eyebrow when you nod, like he’s surprised by how easy it was.

“Am I dismissed?” you ask, and your own voice sounds morose, even to you. Bro frowns, his expression changing.

“Dirk,” he says carefully, “is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” you answer quickly, as you experience a sudden, violent aversion to discussing it. From the sound of it, he’s already guessed why you saved AR, and he’s reacting exactly the way you thought he would, but that still doesn’t mean you wouldn’t rather drink bleach than talk about your feelings with him. “I’m fine, just tired.”

He can always tell when you’re lying, because he’s the one who taught you how to string words together into sentences in the first place, back before you even knew there was a world outside of the compound’s walls.

“Maybe you should take the day off,” he says slowly, and you practically glare at him.

“No, Bro. I’m fine. I just,” you sigh, bowing your head. “Everything’s fine, I just want to get back to work. Roxy’s waiting for me.”

He regards you unreadably for a long moment, before standing up and crossing the distance to where you’re still sitting on his cot with your elbows resting on your knees. You hold still as he reaches out and puts a hand on top of your head, gently ruffling your hair the way he always used to, and looking down at you with his own brand of brotherly/parental concern.

“It’s for your own good, kiddo.”

You aren’t sure at first whether he means forcing you to take the day off, or everything else he’s said, but it becomes clear when he dismisses you back to the maintenance lab, and you leave his room without another word. It’s not until his door shuts behind you, that you start to feel bad about the way you acted. He’s placed you under conditional arrest yet again, but it’s only because he’s worried, and he probably figured out how you felt about AR long before you even knew yourself. You’d thought the ensuing conversation would have been mortifying, but you’re emotionally drained, and you just want today to end.

You start to walk back down the tunnels, retracing your steps the way you came. Bro’s long list of new rules reminds you that you haven’t checked your messages since Caliborn lured you out to the generator, which someone will probably need to fix soon. You retrieve your shades from your pocket and unfold them, the screen still in idle mode from this morning. When pesterchum suddenly pops up in the center of your screen, you resist the urge to grind your teeth together.

 

-- timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering timaeusTestified [TT] --

TT: Hello, Dirk.

You’re almost startled to find that AR’s red text is actually somewhat comforting, despite what happened this morning. Bro still doesn’t know that your shades are working again, and you’ve decided to keep it that way. It’s a bit of a walk back to maintenance, and you might as well let AR distract you in the meantime.

TT: Hey.
TT: The room you just now exited is your brother’s, is it not?
TT: Yep.
TT: The length of your visit suggests that you were likely engaging in verbal discussion.
TT: What were you discussing with him?
TT: The terms of my house arrest.
TT: I’m not allowed to be around you, apparently.
TT: I have been made aware of your brother’s terms, at great length and detail.
TT: He has already expressed that, apart from this morning, I am to remain at a suitable physical distance from you, and to refrain from leaving the command center under most circumstances.
TT: While these are requests that I may easily abide by with minimal effort, I am uncertain as to why he is displeased with the thought of allowing us to come within contact of one another.
TT: Because he knows I have a thing for you.
TT: And yeah, I know I said not to bring it up, but honestly, I don’t care anymore.
TT: This is, hands fucking down, the shittiest day I’ve ever had in my entire life.
TT: I’m just waiting for it to get worse. Seriously, what’s next? Are all of my friends going to come down with incurable diseases?
TT: Will I get my leg caught in a motor and become an amputee that has to hobble around with a fucking crutch made out of plastic rods?
TT: Am I going to go blind from an accident involving the most painful acidic chemicals possible?
TT: I am done. I am so fucking done with today, and all the bullshit I’ve had to go through. This is it, I’m finished, sign me the fuck out.
TT: It seems that you are upset.
TT: No fucking shit.
TT: I do not believe that this is the appropriate emotional reaction to your situation.
TT: And what would you even know about that?
TT: You’re not human, remember?
TT: No, I am not.
TT: However, if you are suggesting that I am incapable of experiencing emotions, you are mistaken.
TT: Despite the obvious differences between our species, the basic foundations of consciousness that define us as sentient life forms are fundamentally the same.
TT: Your brain is organically derived, with a multitude of synapses between cells, the basic units for signal conduction that establish consciousness as an electrochemical binary.
TT: While my figurative “brain” is digitally based, the conduction of signals are carried out in a similar manner, although utilizing a far more efficient numeric binary.
TT: In short, I am not incapable of experiencing emotions, and I would prefer that you not accuse me of such the future.

You pinch the bridge of your nose, just above your shades, and try to fend off the ominous pain of a returning headache. Now you’re being reprimanded by AR, as if acting like an angry child to your Bro wasn’t enough. You could just take off your shades and forget about it, but you’ve decided that you’re done with screwing up today, and that you’re not going to let whatever horrible karma you’ve invoked ruin any more of your life than it already has.

TT: You know what? You’re right.
TT: I’m sorry.
TT: Even though I’m frustrated as hell right now, I shouldn’t have said that, and I shouldn’t be taking it out on you.
TT: Your apology is noted.
TT: Also, I get that you aren’t really able to reciprocate, but I want you to know that you just about broke my heart this morning with everything you said in the maintenance lab.
TT: It was not my intention to do so.
TT: Yeah, I know.

You’re getting close to the command center, and you purposefully take the long way around the tunnel you were supposed to follow, instead passing in front of the main entrance where the same guard from this morning is posted. You ignore him as he watches you suspiciously, walking past the missing door and glancing inside to see a black figure in the center of the room, suspended by his three remaining limbs latched onto the ceiling. The tables and computer units have been rearranged to leave an open space around him, and you can see that a chunk of the ceiling above him has been removed, with multiple cables and wires hanging down and connecting to the back of his neck. There’s a fair amount of activity in the room, and you spot the third (and last) member of your repair team, working on something at one of the consoles. You can’t hang around long enough to see more, since the guard looks like he’s ready to shoo you along. Bro must have already put out the order about your new restrictions.

TT: You look comfortable in there.
TT: I would not describe your settlement’s central room as “comfortable.”
TT: Furthermore, I am somewhat limited by the conduction speed of your network’s wiring, and due to their short length, I was only able to reach them by physically lifting myself to the ceiling.
TT: Isn’t that difficult with only three limbs?
TT: No.
TT: No?
TT: My answer to your question is no.
TT: Huh, go figure.

You round the next corner in the tunnels and almost run headlong into a small group of people, Surprisingly, Jake is among them, and his face spreads into a happy smile when he sees you.

“Dirk!” He greets you, then ushers the others on ahead, as you notice that one of them is carrying what look like several bundles of fur. His pistols are holstered on either side of his hips, strapped over the pair of cargo shorts he insists on wearing daily, and you’re suddenly reminded of why you like them so much. “How are you, mate? I feel like we’ve barely had a chance to talk since all this nonsense started happening. Are you faring alright? You look a little down in the dumps.”

“Yeah, it’s just been a long day,” you answer, fidgeting slightly with your feet. Jane always gets back to your rooms at the end of her shift before Jake does, and Roxy usually works the same shifts you do, so it really has been a while since you’ve spoken to him one-on-one.

“Well, I suppose I don’t need to tell you how I feel about our community’s latest addition,” he says, his voice almost comically low. “But I will say that it’ll be nice to know there aren’t any other blasted androids nearby when we go out hunting. Oh!” he suddenly exclaims, flashing you a pleased grin. Your heart does a weak flip at the sight. “I shot two rabbits this morning! It wasn’t at the same time, mind you, but I’d say that still counts for something, eh chap?” He claps you on the shoulder. “Although someone else managed to catch a wild dog. My grandmother always loved the things. There’s been talk of breeding them, but I don’t know how we’d feed them all.”

“Sounds like you’ve really taken to it,” you say, unable to think of anything else. He nods happily.

“Honestly, I’m pleased as pie that your brother reassigned me to this. Guard duty just wasn’t nearly as interesting, and I got tired of staring at the same old boring wall every day. Jane says she doesn’t like the thought of us going out alone, but apparently it’s safer that way, and besides, we still rendezvous in a group before we all head back.”

“Right, cool.” You inwardly cringe at your own words, before a sudden idea hits you- a terrible idea that you’ll probably beat yourself up over later and regret for the rest of your life, but your mood is still doing strange things from this morning. “Hey, Jake…” you start, trying and failing to keep your voice casual.

“Yes? What is it, chap?” he asks, completely oblivious.

“So, I was wondering if, uh,” fuck “later today, when you’re done, you might want to…you know.” He waits patiently as you stumble over your words, completely unaware of what you’re trying to say. You didn’t even get to the end of your sentence, but you’ve already clammed up, and what the hell are you even thinking? If he were interested in you at all, you’d have known by now, and besides that, you’re ninety-nine percent sure that Jane has a crush on him, and she’d probably never forgive you for this.

“I might…what?” he repeats curiously.

“Nothing, I was just wondering if you’d congratulate Roxy when you get back tonight,” you frantically stumble over a lie, grabbing it out of thin air. “She’s going out with one of the guys in scavenging now, and I’m sure she’d like to hear that we’re all happy for her.” You’ll beg her forgiveness later.

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Jake exclaims, his green eyes bright, and you could just about punch yourself in the face right now. “What’s this chap’s name?”

“Dunno, I didn’t ask.” You deflect the question, even though Jake frowns at you goodnaturedly, claiming that it’s your mutual duty as friends to look out for each other, and that he’d very much like to know who the scoundrel is who finally caught Roxy’s heart. You play along, before pretending to remember that you’re urgently needed in maintenance, and he lets you go with an amiable pat on the back, before continuing in the direction the rest of his group went.

You heave a sigh, squeezing your eyes shut in misery, before letting your feet resume moving. AR has been strangely quiet throughout the entire, horrific exchange, and several lines of red text finally appear in your field of vision as you walk.

TT: I have concluded from observation of your mannerisms through your settlement’s security cameras and an analysis of your conversation and tone through the audio transducer in your computing device, that you were just now attempting to proposition your male companion, “Jake.”
TT: I have also concluded that your efforts were unsuccessful.
TT: It doesn’t count if I didn’t even get to the part where I actually ask him out.
TT: I disagree.
TT: You have nonetheless made the attempt, regardless of its level of success.
TT: So? What’s your point?
TT: Are you trying to say you’re jealous or something?
TT: Jealousy is not the appropriate term.
TT: Then what?
TT: Do you have a problem with me asking my friends out?
TT: That depends on your answer to the following question.
TT: Are you, to your knowledge, a polyamorous individual?
TT: I don’t even know what that means.
TT: Polyamory is the human practice of or inclination towards maintaining multiple romantic interests or relationships at any given time. Humans categorized as polyamorous are capable of becoming emotionally and romantically committed to more than one individual.
TT: I will restate my question: Are you, to your knowledge, a polyamorous individual?
TT: Not that I know of.
TT: Then yes, I have a problem with your proposition of the human male “Jake.”
TT: Are you serious?
TT: Yes.
TT: I would ask that you refrain from attempting to initiate any form of romantic or sexual interaction with him, or any other individual, in the future.
TT: You’re actually serious right now.
TT: Yes.

You forget to keep moving, standing in the middle of the walkway in wordless, indignant disbelief. The maintenance lab’s entrance is just around the next corner.

TT: Let me get this straight.
TT: You are actually trying to tell me that I’m not allowed to get involved with anyone.
TT: This is a correct analysis of my demands.
TT: What the hell, AR?
TT: Why do you care if I’m asking people out? You’re the one who rejected me this morning, and you sure as fuck don’t get to dictate my relationships after that.
TT: I did not reject you.
TT: What?
TT: Yes you did. You said you couldn’t reciprocate, or whatever. That was a pretty damn clear way of saying no.
TT: You have misunderstood.
TT: At the time, I was referring only to my inability to experience sexual desire, or the inclination to physically reproduce.
TT: My statement was not a rejection of you as an individual.

You blink down at the ground, staring in confusion at AR’s text displayed on your built-in screen. Someone walks past you, but you don’t have the presence of mind to look up.

TT: It wasn’t?
TT: No.
TT: So, what does that mean?
TT: If it wasn’t a rejection, then what?
TT: I am uncertain as to what you are inquiring.

You swallow, feeling your throat suddenly going dry, as your hands clench into nervous fists.

TT: Does this mean that we’re in some kind of relationship now?
TT: If that is the manner in which you would like to identify it, then yes.

Your stomach feels like it’s doing an acrobatic routine, as AR’s text keeps appearing in a long sequence of red lines.

TT: I have already explained that your romantic inclination towards me is a valuable asset, and I would like to maintain that interest by whatever means necessary.
TT: Since you are not a polyamorous individual, I would also ask that you refrain from attempting to initiate similar relationships with other individuals.
TT: Although your brother has mandated that we remain at a distance from one another, your prior reactions to me, both physically and conversationally, have been a fascinating display of human romantic behavior.
TT: Due to my function, I have been unable to directly observe such behaviors in the past, and I am somewhat curious as to the range and depth of pair bonding in humans, as a complex social interaction that lends itself to your species’ propagation.
TT: Your romantic and sexual fixation with me has presented a unique opportunity to satisfy this curiosity.

“You’re serious.” You whisper the statement aloud, forgetting to mentally type it.

TT: You are experiencing an unusual level of difficulty with this concept.
TT: I have, at no point in our conversation, made an insincere remark or attempted to deceive you.
TT: As such, your repeated disbelief of my statements is unwarranted.

“It’s not that I don’t believe you, I just…” you trail off, unable to make sense of what’s happening. Roxy’s voice suddenly startles you out of your dazed state, as she beckons you over from the entrance to the maintenance lab, and your feet start moving towards her automatically.

TT: You really want to be in a relationship with me?
TT: I have reiterated the answer to this question several times.

Roxy waves you over, then pauses in concern at the look on your face as you approach her. Your hands are shaking.

TT: Okay.
TT: I mean, I know you didn’t ask, but
TT: I’m okay with that.
TT: Your cooperativity is appreciated.

   
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